Florida Candidates Are Riding Roughshod Over Federal “Soft Money” Rules

tall stack of cash in dark, gloomy lighting

Voters have a fundamental right to know who is spending money to influence their vote, and to rest assured that the officials they elect remain untainted by the reality or appearance of corruption. This is why federal campaign finance laws are crucial to protecting transparency and accountability in our elections and our government. 

These laws require the complete and accurate disclosure of political contributions, prohibit campaign contributions from certain sources, including corporations and federal contractors, and limit the amount that any contributor can give to a candidate or political party. 

But federal campaign finance laws only work if candidates can’t circumvent them, such as by using “soft money”—including money that’s raised by nonfederal committees and organizations that aren’t governed by federal law—to run for federal office. 

That’s why in 2002, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which is sometimes called “McCain-Feingold,” to prohibit federal candidates and officeholders—along with their agents, any entities they directly or indirectly establish, finance, maintain, or control, and any entities that act on their behalf—from raising and spending soft money to run for federal office.  

But of late, BCRA and the rules prohibiting soft money have been blatantly violated, particularly by federal candidates from Florida. 

For instance, Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, is currently running for president with the overt backing of a super PAC called Never Back Down, financed with $82.5 million in soft money that DeSantis himself raised through a state PAC called “Friends of Ron DeSantis.”

By transferring this colossal sum to a federal super PAC exclusively supporting his 2024 presidential candidacy, DeSantis brazenly violated BCRA’s soft money prohibition on an unprecedented scale. 

In May 2023, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) filed a complaint urging the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the independent government agency responsible for implementing and enforcing federal campaign finance laws, to open an investigation and enforce the law.

By raising and spending soft money in connection with the 2024 presidential election, DeSantis clearly violated the law, and the FEC now needs to do its job and hold him accountable. 

DeSantis isn’t alone, however. CLC recently uncovered two more examples of candidates using soft money to seek federal office, both of whom—like DeSantis—raised money through state PACs in Florida. 

As a Florida state legislator, Aaron Bean established and served as chairperson for a state PAC called “Florida Conservative Alliance,” which he used to raise over $2.1 million over a nine-year period from 2013 to 2022.

Then, just five weeks before declaring himself a candidate for Congress on June 2, 2022, Bean resigned his chair position and sought to distance himself from this state PAC.  

On June 7, 2022, Florida Conservative Alliance contributed over $1.1 million—all of which was soft money—to “Keep Florida Red PAC,” a federal super PAC that used that money to support Bean’s candidacy.

By comparison, Bean’s campaign raised and spent a similar amount, $1,198,576.19, during the 2022 election cycle, which means the soft money that Bean illegally transferred to the super PAC supporting him effectively doubled the amount backing his bid for Congress. 

Bolstered by this brazen soft money scheme, Bean won his bid to represent Florida’s 4th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Similarly, Kelli Stargel, another 2022 congressional candidate in Florida, transferred $1 million in soft money from a state PAC that she established in 2013 called “Limited Govt for a Stronger Florida Political Committee” to “Conservative Warriors PAC,” a super PAC supporting her federal candidacy.

Over nearly a decade, Stargel’s state PAC had raised over $2.8 million on her behalf, and it was disbanded just three days after Stargel declared her candidacy for Congress on May 16, 2022.  

Three weeks later, on June 6, 2022, the federal super PAC received $1 million in soft money from the state PAC, virtually all of which was used to support Stargel’s candidacy. The $1 million in illegal soft money support for Stargel’s candidacy dwarfed the $360,000 that Stargel raised through her campaign committee. 

These soft money violations aren’t trivial or technical; they undermined important electoral protections. Both Bean’s and Stargel’s state PACs reported receiving six-figure sums from federal contractors, a group that is categorically prohibited from making contributions to federal candidates or committees—including super PACs—to prevent the reality or appearance of corrupt, “pay to play” style politics, e.g., where companies performing on taxpayer-funded federal contracts reward their sponsors in public office with political contributions.   

CLC has filed complaints with the FEC against Bean and Stargel for violating the federal laws that bar the use of soft money in connection with a federal election. Now, it’s up to the FEC to enforce the law, hold these individuals accountable, and protect the integrity of the electoral process. 

As Bean is a sitting member of Congress, CLC filed an additional complaint against him with the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which has the authority to investigate violations of federal campaign finance laws by members of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Soft money is a serious problem in our federal elections, and it threatens to derail the important electoral protections that federal campaign finance laws provide. It’s imperative that the FEC and OCE take these matters seriously and enforce the law. That’s what’s needed to protect voters and our elections, in 2024 and beyond. 

Saurav is the Director, Federal Campaign Finance Reform at CLC.