Ready for Hillary courts super PAC skeptics

Democratic donors deliver for pro-Clinton group despite displeasure with 'Citizens United'

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Until last year, Wisconsin attorney Christine Bremer Muggli had never donated to a super PAC.

But records show she contributed $100 to a super PAC called Ready for Hillary in August. Then, in September, she gave the group another $100. And by the end of December, she had given $400 to the nascent organization that wants Democrat Hillary Clinton to again occupy White House — this time as commander in chief.

“Hillary Clinton deserves to be the first woman president,” Bremer Muggli told the Center for Public Integrity. “I wanted to jump in early and say ‘Please run’ right away.”

Like other super PACs, Ready for Hillary can trace its origins to the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in 2010, which helped paved the way for political action committees to raise unlimited sums of money to call for the election or defeat of candidates.

President Barack Obama, under whom Clinton served as secretary of state, said in 2010 that he couldn’t “think of anything more devastating to the public interest” than Citizens United.

But unlike most other super PACs, Ready for Hillary is attempting to convert rank-and-file Democratic donors — who, like Obama, have generally expressed skepticism, if not outright hostility, toward super PACs and the Citizens United decision — into financial backers.

That means finding a lot more people like Bremer Muggli — passionate supporters willing to give their money to an unproven but unfettered outside operation, instead of, or in addition to, a political party or authorized campaign committee. It’s also a super PAC with no guarantees, as Clinton herself could choose not to run.

So far, in this regard, financial filings suggest Ready for Hillary is succeeding. And as Ready for Hillary continues to win over grassroots donors, it is helping mainstream the Democratic Party’s embrace of super PACs.

Even as Bremer Muggli — a die-hard Democrat who serves on the Democratic National Committee — says she’d prefer to see publicly funded elections, she also sees the value in co-opting the political tools so often wielded by billionaires such as Republican casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson.

“Super PACs can be anything,” she said. “Until we have a change in the law, we have to do what we can.”

Displays of faith

Conceived in January 2013, Ready for Hillary raised $4 million last year. Although it is permitted to raise unlimited amounts of money, it imposed a voluntary $25,000 cap on contributions. 

Nevertheless, its haul ranked it among the highest-grossing super PACs in the country, raising roughly the same amount in 2013 that conservative juggernaut American Crossroads did.

Despite the fact that Clinton is neither an official candidate nor is the 2016 election imminent in any sense of the word, Joanne Skillings, a health industry consultant in Maine, told the Center for Public Integrity that she was “willing to take the risk” in order to make a gesture of support.

“I really want to see her succeed,” said Skillings, who gave Ready for Hillary $220 last year.

“Even though I don’t like super PACs, let’s play within the rules,” added Jennie Sweet-Cushman, a political science professor at Chatham University in Pennsylvania. “It is crucial that women do more to support candidates financially.”

A self-identified “long-time supporter of Hillary Clinton,” Sweet-Cushman gave $450 to Ready for Hillary last year in installments of $50 a month, according to FEC records.

Paul Lemieux, the president of a beauty salon in Massachusetts, said he gave $500 to Ready for Hillary in September as a sign of “encouragement” and a “display of faith.”

“I donated more than just a little because I wanted it to hopefully have some effect,” he said, adding that he didn’t realize he was contributing to a super PAC. “I want her to be president.”

The super PAC can already claim financial backers from every U.S. state — although New Yorkers and Californians account for nearly half of the money it raised in 2013, according to figures provided to the Center for Public Integrity by the super PAC.

Residents of New York combined to give just shy of $1 million last year, as did residents of California.

Only in seven states — Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming — did fewer than 100 people donate to Ready for Hillary last year.

In all, Ready for Hillary boasted more than 33,600 donors in 2013 — who gave an average of about $120, according to figures provided by the super PAC.

Federal campaign finance records show that about 25 percent of the $4 million Ready for Hillary raised last year came from donors who gave $200 or less.

“We knew there was tremendous grassroots enthusiasm for a potential Hillary Clinton candidacy and that people were looking for a vehicle to express that support,” said Ready for Hillary spokesman Seth Bringman.

Meanwhile, about 37 percent came from five-dozen donors who hit the self-imposed ceiling of $25,000.

Billionaire investor George Soros*, Salesforce.Com CEO Marc Benioff and philanthropist Susie Tompkins Buell — who is a founding co-chair of the Ready for Hillary finance council — all ranked among the Democratic bigwigs who have already cut checks at the $25,000 level.

What if there’s no Hillary campaign to be ready for?

On its website, Ready for Hillary promises that contributions to the super PAC “will help ensure that we have everything we need to reach voters and mobilize support for the woman we all know is ready to do the job.”

But for now, there’s not much direct advocating to be done for a woman who is not an official candidate.

In 2013, about one in three dollars Ready for Hillary spent — more than $1 million — went toward online advertising through the firm Rising Tide Interactive LLC, which is largely staffed by former Democratic Party campaign operatives.

The super PAC also aided Democrat Terry McAuliffe — a long-time friend of the Clintons — during his successful bid last fall to be Virginia’s next governor. It sent canvassers to the Old Dominion and urged its donors to financially support McAuliffe’s campaign.

In 2014, it plans to continue to mobilize its supporters on behalf of Democratic candidates who have been endorsed by Clinton.

But even if Clinton herself decides not to run in 2016, her super PAC supporters don’t see much of a downside to Ready for Hillary’s activities — or their personal investments in the group.

Bringman, the super PAC spokesman, said Ready for Hillary would still be “incredibly valuable” in 2016, even if Clinton didn’t run. The group, he said, would offer up “a network of millions of Americans who are organized and ready to support the Democratic nominee” — whoever that be.

As for the super PAC’s donors?

“I will have absolutely no regrets if she doesn’t run,” Bremer Muggli, the Wisconsin attorney, said of her donations.

Similarly, none of the other Ready for Hillary donors contacted by the Center for Public Integrity said they would lament their super PAC contributions if Clinton opts against a second White House bid.

“It’s not like I can call up Ready for Hillary and ask for a refund,” said Sweet-Cushman, the political science professor.

“I’m not too concerned,” Sweet-Cushman continued. “I’m a fairly strong partisan.”

* The Center for Public Integrity has received financial support from Soros’ Open Society Foundations. See the Center’s list of donors here.