Democratic presidential candidates began their race for the White House with a forceful vow to reject big money, but with less than five days until the Iowa caucuses kickstart the nominating process, the contest has been flooded with super PAC ads and dark-money spending.
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Although most of the frontrunners pledged to not accept big money, super PACs technically operate independently of the campaigns. That allows candidates to distance themselves from the groups. And increasingly, as donors look to sway the race, the messages being aired by the PACs are going negative.
An ad backed by the Democratic Majority for Israel’s political action arm began airing attack ads in Iowa against Sen. Bernie Sanders, according to The New York Times. According to an average of national polls, Sanders is in first place in Iowa, spurring concerns among moderates that the avowed democratic socialist could ultimately clinch the nomination.
The ad includes one voter airing concerns about Sanders’ heart attack.
“I do have some concerns about Bernie Sanders’ health, considering the fact that he did have a heart attack,” an Iowan says in the ad. The Democratic Majority for Israel was formed last year and has not yet disclosed its donors. According to Politico, the ad is backed by a $681,000 TV buy blanketing the airwaves in the week before the caucuses.
In an email to supporters, Sanders' campaign used the negative ad and the outside spending groups to raise money for his campaign. By the end of Wednesday, his campaign announced that it had raised more than $1.3 million.
All told, outside groups have spent more than $14 million in television ads, radio ads and others campaigning on the Democratic presidential race, Politico reported. At least 27 different organizations have spent money on some type of ad or communication in the Democratic primary, Politico reported.
Unite the Country, a super PAC supporting former Vice President Joe Biden, is one of the biggest spenders, pouring more than $4.5 million into TV ads. Biden initially pledged not to accept PAC money but he reversed course in late October because of low fundraising. Biden is among the leaders in a wide field of candidates seeking their party's backing to run against incumbent President Trump.
A veterans group supporting Pete Buttigieg in New Hampshire spent roughly $610,000 on TV ads, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and a nurses union backing Sanders — who is one of the biggest critics of PAC money — spent about $280,000 on ads. Buttigieg demurred when asked whether he’d call on the organization to not spend money on his behalf: “I’m not going to get involved in that,” he said.
Two PACs recently spent about $350,000 supporting Andrew Yang, who recently qualified for the February debate in New Hampshire, where the first primary election is typically held and the second state to hold a nominating contest.
Among top candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar are the only ones not receiving backing from major outside groups.