The Hillary Clinton–Industrial Complex

She hasn't announced she's running and the election is years away, but dozens of PACs, super PACs, and websites—often with unclear goals or strategies—are springing up.
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Yuri Gripas/Reuters

The prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidential candidacy hasn't just fostered the network of semiofficial outside groups that comprise her shadow campaign in waiting. Clinton fever has also led to a proliferation of smaller groups and websites that hope to capitalize on Clinton's name, but may not help her get to the White House.

More than two and a half years out from the 2016 election, there are no fewer than nine PACs or super PACs that include Clinton's name in their own, according to Federal Election Commission records, on top of dozens of Hillary-themed websites. Some are serious efforts with real money and professional staffs; others seem well-intentioned, but politically unsophisticated; more still seem out make money or have missions and strategies too nebulous to comprehend.

It can hard to keep track of them all. Beyond Ready for Hillary, the grassroots group supported by Clinton allies, there's Hillary 2016, the Hillary Clinton Super PAC, and Hillary FTW (For the Win).

It's never been easier to set up an FEC committee, and there's a sense of inevitability around a potential Clinton candidacy, says Sheila Krumholz, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "So naturally this inspires both serious party activists and the hucksters that are out to make an easy buck off her name and the public's confusion about the proliferation of sites," Krumholz says. "The bottom line is: It is and always has been donor beware."

This week, another super PAC was added to the mix when Hillary PAC launched. Sam Deskin, a Los Angeles lawyer who started the new PAC, says that while he respects other pro-Hillary groups, he wants to do something more—though what exactly that is remains a bit hazy at the moment. "Ready for Hillary is important, I get it. They're a very big organization with a lot of Clinton friends in there, but there needs to be someone who fights against extremists in Congress," Deskin said.

The group's Facebook page—"Hillary Clinton for President 2016," which started way back in April 2012—has more than 380,000 "likes." Hillary PAC partnered with the special-effects company behind Team America: World Police to produce a comical web video that riffs on the introduction to Mission Impossible, warning that extremist tea partiers have taken over Congress.

So what separates his groups from other pro-Hillary efforts? Deskin says his group will work to make Congress more moderate. How? There will be more funny videos and possibly other activities, depending on fundraising, he said. Deskin also said the group has experienced political advisers working with it, but declined to name them. "I think we play a role. That role needs to be defined to the people," he explained.

And those are just the super PACs supporting Clinton. Others have been created to fight the non-candidate, like Dick Morris's Just Say No to Hillary PAC. The former Clinton White House adviser cum conservative political commentator's name doesn't appear on the organization's campaign finance documents, and neither Morris nor the group's treasurer responded to inquiries. As of its latest FEC filing, the super PAC had raised $0.

Another, the Defeat Hillary Super PAC, already came and went, terminating itself in April of last year, according to records.

Yet one more anti-Clinton group, The Clinton Project, proclaims on its website that it is "the only thing standing between Hillary and the White House." It sells anti-Hillary mugs and shirts, and hosts a game that encourages visitors to slap a digital version of former first lady. It failed to file a year-end report with the FEC, earning a warning that it could face penalties if it doesn't rectify the error. (The Clinton Project's treasurer did not respond to an inquiry.)

The Stop Hillary PAC, on the other hand, raised more than $270,000 last year and has a full team of professionals working on its behalf. "There are other PACs out there that are trying to make some noise, maybe make a buck. We're not trying to do that … It's safe to say ours is the most prominent," said Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the group, which views itself as the inverse to Ready for Hillary.

Some of the pro-Hillary groups, however, seem less active. Hillary FTW has a slick-looking website and a Facebook page with over 3,500 "likes," but has so far obtained only six signatures for its petition and raised $0 as of its latest FEC report. (Pacheco did not respond to a request for comment.)

Some sell gear. HillaryClinton2016.com, a website currently run as an LLC that says it will soon file as a political group, features a wide range of apparel, from Hillary t-shirts to bobbleheads and mugs. A spokesperson told Time's Zeke Miller than the group's goal "simply is to support Hillary Clinton."

That group is not to be confused with a new super PAC called Hillary 2016. It just filed its initial paperwork with the FEC last month, and officials with the group told National Journal that it would be releasing more information about its plans to the press "in the upcoming weeks."

Then there's Time for Hillary, a super PAC and website that has attracted criticism from the Center for Public Integrity for being run by a California man with a history of allegedly shady business tactics. (Time for Hillary also did not respond to a request for comment.)

On top of the super PACs, people have clamored to purchase Clinton-themed website domains. And they only seem to be proliferating at a faster rate as we get closer to the election, according to data provided to National Journal by GoDaddy, a web service that registers domain names.

The company registered 63 percent more Hillary Clinton-related domain names in the first two months of 2014 than it did in the last two months of 2013, according to Elizabeth Driscoll, GoDaddy's vice president of public relations. And January 2014 saw a 23 percent jump over the same month a year ago. "We looked at the name against a summary of key words like president, campaign, 2016, etc.," Driscoll says.

So far, the semiofficial Clinton groups don't seem concerned about confusion. But given the proliferation of groups with similar names, it's reasonable to suspect that an uninformed Web surfer could land on the website of Time for Hillary and think they're at Ready for Hillary.

There's a long history of small-time entrepreneurs making a buck off popular politicians. The right especially has long been plagued by "scam PACs," which happily separate unsophisticated donors from their money and then spend it on salaries on consulting fees for their directors, and not much else.

But—like almost all things Hillary 2016—the ecosystem forming around her potential bid is unusual in its astonishing prematurity and scale.

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Alex Seitz-Wald is a reporter for National Journal

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