As her campaign limps into Super Tuesday, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is receiving millions of dollars in help from the kind of outside money group she has repeatedly decried, underscoring the tough realities of a primary contest featuring two self-funded billionaires and a collection of rivals benefiting from political-action committee money.
Persist PAC, a super PAC that officially formed several days before the Nevada caucuses to support Warren’s campaign, announced Thursday it would spend $9 million in advertising across television markets in three Super Tuesday states: California, Texas and Warren’s home state of Massachusetts. The ad buy came on top of a $3.25 million investment from the group earlier this week in eight other Super Tuesday states.
In an ironic twist, that now makes Warren, who along with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has been the strongest opponent of super PACs in the 2020 campaign, the biggest beneficiary of such a group heading into Super Tuesday — the most prominent reversal yet among the candidates on the issue of high-dollar donations. At one point, nearly every candidate decried the practice, before realizing it may be a necessity for survival.
Under campaign finance laws, donors can give unlimited amounts to a super PAC as long as the groups do not directly coordinate with the candidates they are supporting. Since launching her campaign, Warren has prided herself on her refusal to accept money from political action committees or federal lobbyists, and she has promised to disavow any super PAC that formed on her behalf.
That pledge is still publicly available on her campaign website, but Warren has not distanced herself from Persist PAC. Instead, her rhetoric on the issue started to shift in the past month, as her once-promising campaign underperformed its expectations in the first three states to vote. “If all the candidates want to get rid of super PACs, count me in, I’ll lead the charge,” she told reporters on Feb. 20 in Nevada when asked if she would disavow Persist PAC. “But that’s how it has to be. It can’t be the case that a bunch of people keep them and only one or two don’t.”
In a CNN town hall that same day, she insisted her position was not a reversal. “This is also about the billionaires in the race,” she said. “They have the equivalent of a super PAC— it’s known as their sock drawer … I think we all ought to be running campaigns where all the money comes through the campaign and everybody plays by the same limits and the same disclosures.”
Warren has come under fire since Persist PAC announced its most recent and largest ad buy on Thursday evening. On Friday, her campaign told TIME that Persist PAC and every other backing a Democratic candidate should disclose their donors before Super Tuesday in response to a question about the spending. But it stopped far short of the blanket disavowal that her web site explicitly promises. A spokesperson for Persist PAC said the donors would be released on March 20, the next filing date with the Federal Election Commission.
Warren is hardly the first Democrat to reverse their position on money in politics during the course of the race. As the campaigns kicked off last year, the desire to rid the system of big money was a key talking point that quickly met reality. Former Vice President Joe Biden also decried super PACs before reversing his stance this past October after former aides formed one. Even candidates who still deride them, like Sanders, have a more complex relationship with outside groups than their rhetoric indicates. Sanders is backed by Our Revolution, an organization founded in the wake of his 2016 campaign, which is not required to disclose its donors because it operates as a 501(c)4 non-profit.
“The conundrums of calling for reform while running in the current system have been around for a long time,” says Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a non-partisan group dedicated to political reform.
But with so many delegates on the line this coming Tuesday, Warren’s reversal seemed especially expedient to other campaigns, whom she has slammed for taking money from big donors. “The height of hypocrisy,” one Democratic fundraiser supporting a competitor wrote in a text to TIME.
“Purity tests that you yourself cannot pass,” Lis Smith, a senior adviser to presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, wrote on Twitter. Warren had repeatedly criticized Buttigieg for hobnobbing with rich donors in a “wine cave.”
A note one Biden supporter sent to fellow Democratic donors, viewed by TIME on condition of anonymity, carried a similar message, calling Warren the “ultimate hypocrite.”
“While we all knew she held big money fundraisers in Martha’s Vineyard and Boston, among other places, before the campaign … there is now a Super PAC for her [and] she isn’t denouncing it,” the note read.
While super PACs do not directly put money into any campaign’s coffers, they can provide the kind of financial boost to candidates that Warren needs right now. Her campaign finance filings from January show she had just $2.3 million on hand — the lowest of any major candidate in the race — and that she had spent more than double the $11 million she raised that month. The campaign also took out a $3 million loan, FEC records show, although it only used $400,000 of that money.
McGehee says Warren’s reversal indicates the complexities of navigating a campaign terrain filled with self-funding billionaires and other candidates relying on Super PACs. “It’s kind of hard to go around pointing fingers in a world Citizens United created,” she says, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court case that afforded unlimited spending to corporations and outside groups. “It’s fair to ask these questions about things within the candidate’s control, but they are playing in a very tilted and distorted playing field.”