Jeb Bush says he’s running, won’t follow FEC rules for candidates who say they’re running

When you’re prepping for a presidential run, there are only a couple of rules that you really have to follow. You have to have someone else write a book for you. You have have someone else set up a super PAC for you, complete with at least one committed billionaire to finance it. You have to make a few trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

And you can’t actually say you’re running for president. Because then you have to abide by what few rules the FEC has for how and with whom you can fundraise.

Yesterday, Jeb Bush messed that one up.

Speaking to reporters in Nevada — doing his best to follow the soon-to-be-candidate rules — Jeb Bush said the magic words, “I’m running for president in 2016,” before quickly mumbling something about not having yet made up his mind, exploring his options, wink wink, nudge nudge, screw you, FEC.

Here’s the video of what will almost certainly be this election’s least-dramatic launch:

Reuters has noted that the Campaign Legal Center has complained to federal election officials, arguing that Bush, having technically announced his candidacy, should now be barred from coordinating with Right to Rise, the super PAC supporting his not-yet candidacy. He should also now be subject to contribution limits by individual donors, and restricted as to who is allowed to donate to his candidacy — no corporations or unions.

Bush isn’t the only candidate to have let their guard down and accidentally say that they’re running. Ben Carson and Lincoln Chafee also said the magic words earlier than they meant to without having it affect the exploratory status of their White House bids. However, Bush’s pseudo-candidacy has been defined, even more than his official and unofficial opponents, by blatant exploitation of the lax rules regarding campaign finance that have come to define 21st Century politics.

By all indications, Bush’s campaign will be unprecedented in the degree to which it outsources its operations and responsibilities to Right to Rise, keeping more of his campaign off-the-books than any presidential candidate ever has. The super PAC is expected to shoulder much of Bush’s TV and direct mail advertising, and could even serve as Bush’s ground-level field operation. His expected reliance on this unofficial shadow campaign is one of the reasons he hasn’t already announced his candidacy. But now he has.

If the FEC chose to enforce its own rules, which it won’t, Bush would now have ten business days to file paperwork and declare himself a candidate. After that, he would have to stop coordinating with Right to Rise. Bush clearly has no indication of doing either of those things.

Of course, the FEC should technically consider almost all of the expected field of candidates to be official candidates by now. As CNN explained back in 2011:

The most common way to become a candidate is to file the Statement of Candidacy and Statement of Organization with the FEC. However, the FEC may intervene and force a presidential hopeful to become an official, legal candidate as the direct result of their actions during the exploratory phase.

If a potential candidate essentially “acts” like a candidate, then he or she is subject to the full disclosure requirements of a campaign committee. According to the FEC, some of the tell-tale signs that a potential candidate has moved beyond the exploratory stage are: raising more funds than reasonably required to test the waters, amassing funds to be used after the candidacy is established, using political ads publicizing one’s candidacy, making or authorizing statements that refer to the individual as a candidate and seeking ballot access.

Now that Bush has said “I’m running,” he’s tripped all of these wires, but practically every soon-to-be candidate has raised “more funds than reasonably required to test the waters.” Bush, for his part, hasn’t had any problem telling anyone who will listen that he expects to have raised $100 million for Right to Rise by the end of May. Not too long ago, that was enough to run an entire campaign.

As the Campaign Legal Center outlined earlier this year in a detailed white paper on the absurdity of the current “testing the waters” phases of presidential campaigns, the FEC can and should force most if not all of the likely presidential field to comply with the fundraising limits and restrictions of, well, presidential candidates. That’s how they’re behaving, so that’s how they should be regulated.

Of course, the FEC is deadlocked to the point where it might as well not exist. For all intents and purposes, we have no electoral regulators. So Jeb Bush will continue to run his campaign through Right to Rise, and will officially file his paperwork whenever he damn well pleases.

In the electoral state of nature, might — as measured by money — makes right.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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