New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker swears he doesn’t want a super PAC supporting his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. But he’s finding out he doesn’t have much say in the matter.
Steve Phillips, a wealthy Democratic donor and operative who was a classmate of Booker’s at Stanford University, wrote in an e-mail to allies on Thursday that he’s creating a super PAC, Dream United, to support Booker’s candidacy.
Super PACs, which are allowed to raise unlimited sums from a single donor, provided they don’t coordinate with the candidate they support, have become increasingly unpopular in Democratic politics as voters look askance at the influence of corporations, lobbyists and big donors on policymaking.
In the 2016 Republican presidential primary, essentially every candidate — save now-President Donald Trump — had a wealthy-donor-funded super PAC airing television ads. The 2020 Democratic race is shaping up differently, with all Democratic candidates to enter the presidential race so far, including Booker, insisting they don’t want the support of super PACs.
In an email to HuffPost, Booker spokesman Jeff Giertz didn’t directly say Phillips should shut down the super PAC but reiterated the senator’s stance.
“Cory is building a movement powered by grassroots donations,” Giertz wrote. “Cory 2020 is rejecting contributions from corporate PACs and federal lobbyists. Cory opposes super PACs aiming to support his or anyone’s candidacy for president.”
Phillips, a civil rights lawyer and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, has long financially supported African-American candidates, including President Barack Obama, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Phillips is the author of Brown Is The New White, which argues that Democrats should win power by focusing on courting voters of color instead of white swing voters.
In an interview in January, Phillips said he would use the money to persuade and turn out voters of color in key states to back Booker.
“I expect, frankly, there are going to be thousands of people, many of them professionals of color, who are supportive of Cory and want to give him more than $2,700,” he said, referring to the legal limit for federal campaign donations at the time. “And we want to give them a vehicle, because we think he represents the best chance to reassemble the Obama coalition and bring back the White House.”
Booker, who has political roots in northern New Jersey, has long-standing ties to donors on Wall Street and in the pharmaceutical industry, but Phillips has said he wants to build a broad donor base instead of relying on a few wealthy individuals.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is allied with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), said Booker should directly ask Phillips to shut down the super PAC.
“It’s important to make clear for voters that Democrats stand on the side of everyday working people against big-money interests,” PCCC spokeswoman Marissa Barrow said. “Cory Booker is in a unique position with a super PAC already existing ― he can send an important signal to voters about the strength of his values by publicly calling on his longtime friends to shut down their big-money Super PAC on his behalf, and either return the checks or donate them to voter registration organizations.”
Still, there’s nothing Booker can do to force Phillips to shut down the group. In 2008, Phillips continued to fund an outside group supporting Obama’s candidacy even after the Obama campaign asked him to stop. And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) unsuccessfully tried to stop a super PAC funded by National Nurses United from supporting him in the 2016 presidential race.
Phillips, in a statement, said his group’s work was necessary not just to help Booker to win the primaries but also to lift a Democrat over Trump in the general election.
“Cory Booker’s candidacy is the best vehicle for inspiring the kinds of large voter turnout in communities of color that will be necessary for progressives to win up and down the ticket in 2020,” Phillips said. “Whomever the Democratic nominee ends up being, she or he is going to need voters of color to win. As our team has done for a decade, Dream United will work with all interested parties to move resources into communities of color to expand the electorate. What we are doing goes beyond Booker. We are doing this for our country.”
No other super PACs supporting 2020 Democrats have been launched so far, although The New York Times reported in December that allies of Harris and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have discussed the possibility.
Democratic operatives watching the 2020 contest have speculated that candidates may decide to set up super PACs in order to better compete in ultraexpensive California, whose primary is taking place earlier in 2020 than in previous cycles.
This story has been updated to include comments from Marissa Barrow and Steve Phillips.