We've seen a flurry of presidential campaign announcements over the last several weeks: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee. Oh my.
But there's still at least one big notable absence. Jeb Bush, the first candidate to actually declare he was exploring a presidential bid, seems in no hurry to formally launch one. Instead, Bush has put in motion a plan that's effectively wrecking what's left of our flimsy campaign finance laws.
Bush is taking the time before his formal announcement to build a super PAC that Politico says "would be unprecedented in its size and scope." The group, called Right to Rise, is expected to raise more than $100 million by the end of this month, and its budget may dwarf that of Bush's eventual official campaign.
Presidential campaigns have strict limits on how much money they can raise from individual donors. A super PAC, on the other hand, can raise nearly unlimited amounts of money from deep-pocketed donors. The catch is that a super PAC is not allowed to coordinate its actions with any political campaign. However, as long as Bush is not an official candidate, that catch may not apply. The thinking goes like this: He can help build a massive war chest for his super PAC, coordinate very closely with Right to Rise and lay out any strategy he wants, and then cut off contact and watch from afar as the super PAC acts on his behalf once he's officially in the race. It's deceptively simple, kind of brilliant, and "potentially illegal."
Bush's audacious plan goes farther than any previous use of a super PAC. He intends to outsource many traditional campaign functions, such as voter mobilization and polling, to this super PAC. Indeed, it's not hard to see where the real power in Bush World lies: National Journal reports that longtime Bush loyalist Mike Murphy — who many thought would be his campaign manager — will forgo a top position with the official campaign to run Bush's super PAC instead.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post discovered Bush is also using a separate group called Right to Rise Policy Solutions to hire advisers to develop his campaign platform and policy positions. As a non-profit advocacy group, it can accept secret, unlimited donations from individuals and corporations. No one ever needs to know who is funding the development of Bush's policies.
These outside groups function as a shadow campaign to support the real campaign. And they sit almost entirely outside existing campaign rules.
The idea that Bush is not currently running for president is semantic to a fault — and totally ridiculous. He's crisscrossing the country appearing at fundraisers and candidate forums while talking about his vision for the country. He's as much a candidate as Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, or any of those who have formally announced. But he's not held to the same rules because he hasn't said the magic words "I'm running."
In fact, Bush may wait many more months to announce his bid. Why should he rush?
It's unclear whether Bush's strategy is actually legal. But most experts agree that a politically polarized Federal Election Commission has neither the power nor the will to rein Bush in. And he's setting a worrying precedent. Campaign finance expert Rick Hasen says that even if Bush "does not get the nomination, he is blazing a very dangerous trail for others."
If you think billionaires already have too much power over our politics, you haven't seen anything yet.