As former secretary of state Hillary Clinton weighs a run for president in 2016, at least a dozen independent groups, from the serious to the mysterious, have sprung up to raise money in her name.
Sporting names such as Madam Hillary 2016, Hillary FTW and other variations on Clinton's name, the new crop of political action committees (PACs) is a sign of the 66-year-old's enduring star power more than 20 years after she first became a national figure as the wife of President Bill Clinton.
Some of the groups hope to emulate the success of Ready for Hillary, the organization of well-connected Democrats that already has raised millions of dollars to encourage Hillary Clinton to launch a bid to become the United States' first woman president. Others don't have much to show for their efforts. A few won't say what they plan to do with any money they raise.
The groups illustrate the Wild West landscape of political finance four years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that independent groups can raise and spend as much as they want on elections, as long as they don't work directly with a candidate.
In the 2012 election, the dozens of "Super PACs" and nonprofit groups that popped up to take advantage of that decision largely were run by political insiders such as former White House aide Karl Rove, whose American Crossroads PAC spent more than $100 million to help Republicans that year. This time around, Super PACs also have become a tool for ambitious citizens who in previous elections might have simply opted for a yard sign.
Anyone can file the paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to set up a Super PAC, and such groups can spend whatever money they raise however they wish. That means it's up to donors to do their homework before writing a check, election-law specialists say. "It would be legal under campaign-finance laws to buy a yacht and sail off into the sunset," Paul S. Ryan, an election-law specialist at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said of the lack of restrictions on PACs and nonprofit groups.
None of the 12 Clinton-themed Super PACs has reported any yacht purchases. Three of the PACs - groups called The Hillary Project, Time for Hillary and Hillaryclintonsuperpac - have drawn warnings from the FEC for not disclosing how they have spent any money they have raised.
Ready for Hillary, which boasts a staff of Democratic heavy hitters and a donor base of 50,000 supporters, doesn't seem worried by the competition. "Our mission is clear and critical: to build a massive list of Hillary supporters who will be ready to help Hillary win if she decides to run," spokesman Seth Bringman said.
Some of the other recently established groups share similar goals, though they have just begun to raise money. Los Angeles labor lawyer Samuel Deskin set up Hillary PAC last month to promote a Clinton presidential run and elect more Democrats to Congress. The group has produced a slick Internet video and plans a fundraising event this summer.
"We want Hillary to be in office, but we want her to be able to do something. We don't want her plans to be stifled," Deskin said.
Other PACs carrying Clinton's name are a bit less conventional. In San Francisco, Clinton supporter Sam Lucas has set up Madam Hillary 2016, which he calls a "gay Super PAC gone wild," to rally the gay and lesbian community around Clinton. "I am going to preach the word 'Madam,' " Lucas said. "I am going to etch it into ears and tattoo it into psyches ... all around this country and around this globe." Lucas said he already has a vice presidential running mate for Clinton in mind, but said he is keeping that person's identity secret for now.
Other groups whose names refer to Clinton appear to have made little headway so far. "Everyone at Hillary FTW is focused like a laser beam on drafting Hillary into the 2016 race," reads the web site of a Super PAC called Hillary FTW. The group says it has collected six signatures on a petition and recruited 22 volunteers, but reported no fundraising during its first 10 months of operation. The group's treasurer did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
In Alexandria, Virginia, a man named Eric Williams said he has fielded "millions" of media inquiries since he set up a Super PAC called Hillary 2016 in February, but he declined to discuss his activities further. The fundraising activities for such groups, if there have been any, should become somewhat clearer in June, when the next quarterly fundraising reports are supposed to be filed with the FEC.
Despite such deadlines, potential donors still might have a difficult time figuring out how some Clinton-themed Super PACs spend their money. For example, a man named Nigel Wallace has failed to file two required fundraising reports since setting up Hillaryclintonsuperpac in January 2013, drawing the threat of legal action from the FEC. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, the founders of a Super PAC called Time for Hillary have a record of financial problems and failed business ventures, according to the Center for Public Integrity, an investigative news outlet. The two people listed as officers for the group did not respond to a request for comment. Another website, Hillary.org, solicits donations for an "HRC for President in 2016 Committee." The committee's identification number points to a separate PAC that was shut down by a relative of its founder in 2006. A California phone number listed in the web site's registration records has been disconnected and a contact email appears not to be working.
Dubious fundraising groups aren't unusual in politics, one election-law specialist said. "There are so many committees with similar names, people parading around looking like candidates that aren't candidates, or political committees that aren't the real deal," said Kenneth Gross, a former FEC lawyer now with Skadden Arps, a Washington law firm.
The Anti-Clinton Groups
At least five Super PACs have been set up to oppose to a Clinton candidacy. A group called Stop Hillary PAC raised $274,000 last year and already has crossed swords with pro-Clinton forces. The group complained to the FEC that Ready For Hillary is violating campaign-finance laws because it rented an email list left over from Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. That type of activity generally is permitted under federal law as long as the campaign and independent groups do not coordinate their messages.
Another group called Dick Morris' Just Say No To Hillary PAC was set up by a conservative political strategist who once advised Bill Clinton, but who more recently has become a harsh critic of both Clintons. Morris did not respond to a request for comment.
Because federal law generally prohibits independent political groups from using a candidate's name, most of these groups likely will have to change their name if Clinton decides to run for the presidency, election-law specialists said. But a Clinton candidacy could give a boost to the already-thriving trade in unauthorized T-shirts, coffee mugs and other trinkets that bear her name.
Online retailer CafePress Inc. sold tens of thousands of Clinton-themed items during the first three months of 2014, outpacing sales for every political figure except President Barack Obama, a CafePress spokeswoman said.
Seattle designer Holly Hertzel said she has sold fewer than 100 T-shirts and other items with slogans such as "Hillary 2016," but she expects business to pick up at the end of the year. As a public figure, Clinton is not entitled to a cut of the proceeds from those T-shirt sales or to have commercial control of her image. Hertzel said she did not feel obligated to share her profits with Clinton.
"The only obligation I feel is that I support her," Hertzel said.