Don’t think of this as a multi-billionaire attempting to buy a major-party nomination. Think of this as building partnerships through aid — and self-interested quid pro quos. The Associated Press reported earlier today that an aide to Tom Steyer has repeatedly attempted to arrange donations from Steyer’s campaign to local and statewide candidates in Iowa, but only in exchange for endorsements for his presidential campaign:
A top aide to Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer in Iowa has privately offered campaign contributions to local politicians in exchange for endorsing his White House bid, according to multiple people with direct knowledge of the conversations.
The overtures from Pat Murphy, a former state House speaker who is serving as a top adviser on Steyer’s Iowa campaign, aren’t illegal — though payments for endorsements would violate campaign finance laws if not disclosed. There’s no evidence that any Iowans accepted the offer or received contributions from Steyer’s campaign as compensation for their backing.
But the proposals could revive criticism that the billionaire Steyer is trying to buy his way into the White House. Several state lawmakers and political candidates said they were surprised Steyer’s campaign would think he could buy their support.
Tom Courtney, a former Democratic state senator from southeastern Iowa who’s running for reelection to his old seat, told The Associated Press the financial offer “left a bad taste in my mouth.”
It’s not strictly illegal, but would Team Steyer have complied with the reporting that such arrangements would necessitate? They would have been forced to list those expenditures as campaign costs for the specific purpose of landing those endorsements, eventually opening themselves up for considerable ridicule. Otherwise, Steyer could have faced potential prosecution for FEC violations, as well as paying some steep fines out of his own pocket.
In fact, that brings up a question — why didn’t Steyer just cut these deals personally? It’s likely because Iowa candidates don’t want to part with their endorsement influence for just the FEC maximum individual donation. They want real influence on presidential campaigns and agendas. Campaign-to-campaign transfers don’t have those limits, which means Steyer could easily have used his campaign to launder those transfers while avoiding the personal donation limits.
That alone practically underscores every other Democrat’s get-money-out-of-politics rhetoric this cycle. That’s not the only peccadillo for Team Steyer this week, however. The DNC caught the campaign’s deputy director in South Carolina red-handed in stealing volunteer data from the Kamala Harris campaign, the Post & Courier reported on Monday:
A South Carolina aide for Tom Steyer’s 2020 presidential campaign stole valuable volunteer data collected by Kamala Harris’ campaign using an account from when he worked with the S.C. Democratic Party, according to multiple state and national party officials. …
The Democratic National Committee said they quickly caught the attempt on Friday by Steyer’s deputy S.C. state director Dwane Sims to export Harris’ data, which contained thousands of volunteer contacts collected over the course of the campaign in this critical early-voting primary state.
The party sent a cease-and-desist letter and has since received certification from Sims that he destroyed the stolen data, S.C. Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson told The Post and Courier.
“We take this matter very seriously, and that is why we immediately worked with the DNC to disable this employee’s access to Vote Builder,” said S.C. Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson, referring to the voter file system. “It is critical that the Steyer campaign take immediate action regarding their employee.”
Sims resigned later on Monday, and Team Steyer later issued an apology. In Iowa, Murphy did the same earlier today, claiming he had been misunderstood:
When asked about the AP report, Steyer’s campaign responded with a statement from Murphy, a former state House speaker, who did not directly address the allegations.
“As a former legislator, I know how tricky the endorsement process can be for folks in Iowa. It was never my intention to make my former colleagues uncomfortable, and I apologize for any miscommunication on my part,” Murphy said in a statement to CNBC.
“I joined the campaign because I believe Tom is the best candidate to take on Donald Trump and that he shares Iowa’s values. I know that Tom’s message will resonate with leaders across the state and that any endorsements will come from the merit of his message.”
If that’s the case, why bother to buy the endorsements at all?
At least one of Steyer’s opponents directly blasted him for the attempts. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who has barely registered in polling thus far but remains in the race, says Democrats “won’t be bought”:
— Steve Bullock (@GovernorBullock) November 7, 2019
Well, Steyer managed to rent them for a night when Harry Reid ran the Senate. Can’t blame him now for thinking a few quid might go a long way toward quo now.
Anyway, this shows that quid pro quos aren’t actually illegal per se. They’re usually lame, though, and in this case especially so.