More super PAC money has been spent in express support of Sen. Bernie Sanders than for either of his Democratic rivals, including Hillary Clinton, according to Federal Election Commission records.
DES MOINES, Iowa — As he swung through Iowa this week, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont rarely passed up a chance to bash the rising tide of money in politics, a system he said Tuesday was “corrupt and undermining American democracy.”
At many stops, he was accompanied by members of National Nurses United, a seven-year-old union, fanning out from a bright-red bus in matching red scrubs to corral potential Sanders votes.
The union is not just busing nurses into Iowa. The union’s super PAC has spent nearly $1 million on ads and other support for Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who has inspired liberal voters with his calls to eradicate such outside groups. In fact, more super PAC money has been spent in express support of Sanders than for either of his Democratic rivals, including Hillary Clinton, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records.
“I do appreciate the irony,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United. “All things being equal, we would rather not be doing this. On the other hand, we want to see Bernie as president.”
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Sanders’ unlikely rise to super PAC pre-eminence is, in part, the story of an unusual alignment of strategies by different outside groups, including Republican ones eager to bloody Clinton and lift Sanders, whom conservatives believe will be easier to defeat in a general election. While the nurses’ super PAC is the biggest left-leaning outside spender in the Democratic primary, conservative organizations have also spent at least $4.3 million attacking Clinton in recent months.
One recent online ad from the Republican super PAC American Crossroads has assailed Clinton for her Wall Street speaking fees, echoing an argument Sanders often makes against her.
The super PAC spending by the nurses union also illustrates an aspect of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that Sanders rarely dwells on in his campaign speeches attacking the ruling. The same decision that gave corporations the ability to “buy and purchase the United States government” — as Sanders put it during a visit to Grinnell College on Monday — bestowed the same rights on labor unions, freeing them to spend unlimited money from their treasuries on election advertising.
While the vast majority of super PAC money still comes from wealthy individuals, union cash — pooled from the dues and contributions of members — has become a critical source of money for outside groups on the left. In 2012 and 2014, unions contributed more than $200 million to super PACs. More than half of it went to union-controlled groups that spent tens of millions of dollars on advertising, mailers and other “independent expenditures.” So far in 2016, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, seven of the top 20 organizational contributors to super PACs were unions or their affiliates, rather than corporations.
No union has spent as much money in the Democratic primary as National Nurses United, which was born out of a 2009 merger of three smaller unions and has embraced liberal politics and movement-building. In 2011, union nurses provided health care at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Lower Manhattan, and the organization has lobbied forcefully for single-payer health care and a financial-transaction tax.
When most large labor organizations backed Clinton, the nurses were among a handful to support Sanders, among them the Communications Workers of America and the postal workers union.
The group’s campaigning advocacy for Sanders has drawn charges of hypocrisy from Clinton’s supporters. While Sanders frequently declares he has no super PAC of his own, he has not publicly called on the nurses to refrain from their efforts on his behalf. He has welcomed their help, thanking the nurses by name in campaign speeches and referring to the union in one recent appearance as “one of the sponsors” of his campaign.
“This is one of the prime examples of Sen. Sanders saying one thing and doing another,” said Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Clinton. “For months he had criticized super PACs and pledged to shun them in his campaign, but all along he has benefited from hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent expenditures from one of those very organizations.”
Sanders insists there is no contradiction.
“The difference is a pretty simple difference,” Sanders said Tuesday. “Hillary Clinton goes out raising money for her own super PAC. I don’t have a super PAC, and in the best of all possible worlds, which I hope to bring about, we will get rid of super PACs, we will overturn Citizens United.”
Clinton has helped raise money for a super PAC: Priorities USA Action, a group originally formed to help re-elect President Obama and now run by a former Clinton campaign aide. The group has raised more than $40 million since the beginning of last year, including seven-figure contributions from the kind of billionaire financiers Sanders delights in lampooning. Priorities USA has continued to husband most of its money for later in the campaign, however, in anticipation of a major general-election battle, with Clinton as the nominee.