New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, is heading to Des Moines, IA, today to give the keynote address at the holiday party of the group Progress Iowa. The New York Times reports that de Blasio’s trip “will mark the first landfall of a New York politician in the presidential proving grounds of Iowa ahead of 2020.” Other New Yorkers expected to run for president in 2020—and soon heading to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina—include Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. In other words, although the 2018 midterm elections are still nearly a year away, the 2020 presidential race is already on.
How is Mayor de Blasio paying for this trip to Iowa? Is he using funds that comply with federal law candidate contribution restrictions—i.e., no corporate or union funds and no more than $2,700 from any permissible donor? Is he keeping track of this political spending, so he can disclose it if he actually becomes a federal candidate? He’d better be!
Federal campaign finance law requires prospective candidates for federal office to pay for any “testing the waters” activities with federally-permissible funds. And if the prospective candidate becomes an actual candidate, federal law requires that candidate to disclose funds previously raised and spent to “test the waters.” Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulations describe “testing the waters” as money raised and spent “for the purpose of determining whether an individual should become a candidate.” FEC guidance makes clear that “testing the waters” activities include, but are not limited to:
- Travel for the purpose of determining whether an individual should become a candidate;
- Attending, addressing, and renting hospitality suites at state political party conferences where the individual “indicates his potential interest in, and his ongoing consideration of whether to seek” his party’s nomination; and
- Private meetings with state party leaders to gauge support of a possible candidacy.
Unfortunately, the FEC in recent years has a pretty poor track record for enforcing its “testing the waters” requirements. During the 2016 presidential cycle, the FEC stood idly by while nearly every serious candidate made a mockery of federal campaign finance laws. Jeb Bush, for example, spent the first half of 2015 barnstorming the country and raising more than $100 million in unlimited contributions for a super PAC—money that can’t be raised or spent to “test the waters” or run for federal office—all the while claiming that he wasn’t testing the waters or campaigning for president. A complaint against Bush for these activities has been pending at the FEC for more than two years.
The FEC may indulge abuses of the law; Common Cause and our million-plus members and supporters will not. Common Cause calls on all prospective 2020 presidential candidates to admit when they’re traveling to early primary/caucus states to “test the waters” of candidacy, and to comply with federal campaign finance law requirements for the funding of such activities. A little honesty is not too much to ask of individuals seeking the presidency.