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Why Senators Eyeing 2016 Have A Fundraising Disadvantage

Rules dictate that federally elected officials cannot set up their own super PACs and that they can raise no more than $5,000 per person.
US Senator Rubio
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is interviewed at the Reuters Health Summit 2014 in Washington April 1, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron (UNITED STATES - Tags: HEALTH BUSINESS POLITICS) - RTR3JIILGary Cameron / Reuters, file

The dash for cash is on among Republicans considering a run for president in 2016, and Jeb Bush and other Republican governors have a huge advantage over the senators in the race because of campaign finance law.

For instance, Bush has already reportedly hosted at least one fundraiser charging up to $100,000 per donor. Meanwhile, another fellow Floridian considering a White House bid, Senator Marco Rubio, can only ask his supporters for $5,000 each.

That’s a huge disparity and one that does not benefit any senator contemplating a run for president under the rules of campaign finance.

Because Rubio is serving as a federal elected official, he is limited in the types of political fundraising organizations he can set up - and thus the amount of money he can solicit from donors. Campaign finance rules dictate that federally elected officials cannot set up their own super PACs and that they can raise no more than $5,000 per individual.

That rule applies to other senators contemplating a presidential bid, including Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, on the other hand, are among the candidates who have set up political organizations with the ability to raise unlimited amounts of money.

Bush's political organization, Right to Rise, is what's known as a super PAC, while Walker's Our American Revival group is structured as another type of political entity, a 527. Both are working under the notion that they can raise unlimited funds to pay for this pre-campaign stage of their presidential journey.

Meanwhile, the senators have created leadership PACs that must comply with more stringent federal election laws – most notably the $5,000 contribution limits. (Graham has formed a “testing the waters” committee and is subject to even more rigorous restrictions that limit donations to $2,700 per person.)

“(Senators) couldn’t ask for the million dollar contribution Bush is asking for his super PAC,” Anthony Corrado, professor of government at Colby College, said.

Scott Farmer, a campaign finance attorney working for Graham, acknowledged that federal candidates are competing under different rules.

“Any federal official or federal candidate is at a fundraising disadvantage compared to non-federal officials or undeclared candidates who can solicit unlimited donations for their super PACs prior to becoming official candidates,” Farmer said.

This phenomenon is a new one. The 2010 Supreme Court Case known as Citizens United gutted existing campaign finance laws and enabled the creation of new political organizations that can raise unlimited amounts of money, including from corporation and unions. While super PACs existed in the last presidential cycle, Bush is the first likely candidate to set up his own super PAC in advance of a run.

Some campaign finance experts argue that potential candidates raising unlimited amounts of money is unprecedented and should be investigated by the Federal Election Committee, the organization responsible for overseeing campaign finance. Critics argue that would-be candidates shouldn't be able to use vast amounts of these funds to pay for pre-presidential activity such as traveling to presidential primary states, engaging with voters and hiring staff.

If the FEC doesn’t investigate or does and finds no wrongdoing, then Corrado says non-senators and House members have a distinct disadvantage.

“The advantage the non federal office holders have over the office holders is real because they can raise unlimited contributions and use that committee to finance the building of their political profile,” he said.