Yes, we live in a gilded age of campaign finance, with billionaire donors forking over tens of millions of dollars to super PACs.
But hard money — which is contributed directly to candidates’ campaigns, political parties or regular PACs and, unlike outside money, is subject to limits — still matters to those seeking office. Candidates need it for salaries, travel, rent, phone bills, producing ads, purchasing air time and other expenses that are hard to avoid, and many a campaign has foundered for lack of it (see, e.g., Rick Perry and Jeb Bush).
“Those resources that go into this pool can be used much more effectively than any outside resources,” said Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.
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And a list of top donors of hard money looks very different than the roster of top donors overall, which is skewed by the few who give big bucks to outside spending groups. For instance, the organization that has contributed the most in this election cycle is hedge fund firm Renaissance Technologies, profiled on OpenSecrets Blog earlier this week for the huge sums its top two executives have given to super PACs.
Most of the top hard money groups are companies with well-established lobbying records, and they give chiefly through their PACs rather than through individual employees. The PACs tend to contribute to congressional races all across the country, giving the maximum allowed amount of $10,000 ($5,000 per candidate, per election) to dozens of candidates. In many of these races — most of them low profile on the national scale — hard money from individual donors and PACs to the incumbents and challengers running far outweighs contributions to outside groups, Malbin noted.
Companies are barred from giving to candidates or parties from their corporate treasuries; they may contribute to outside spending groups, though it’s rare for publicly traded corporations to do so.
Of the top 10 hard money organizations, nine lean Republican.
Leading the group is aerospace and military manufacturer Honeywell, which also held this spot in the 2014 election cycle. The company has long been involved in significant — and expensive — lobbying on a variety of issues, particularly defense and energy. Though it gives to both sides of the aisle, it typically leans right and 2016 has been no different. Of the $4.4 million in hard money that Honeywell and its employees have given this cycle, 67 percent has gone to Republicans. The majority of that has come from the company’s PAC, rather than from individual employees (who can give just $2,700 per candidate, per election), and has been handed out to scores of Republican congressional candidates across the country — many of whom have received the maximum allowed amount of $10,000 from the company. Honeywell’s PAC has also given $75,000 to both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, along with smaller sums to similar party groups.
Behind Honeywell are communications giants AT&T and Comcast, both of which follow giving patterns that are somewhat similar to those of the aerospace company. Each organization’s donations skew right, with 61 percent of AT&T’s $3.7 million and 53 percent of Comcast’s $3.5 million going to the GOP, and in both cases the company PAC is responsible for the lion’s share of contributions. Both companies have given to scores of congressional candidates nationwide, often maxing out at $10,000 per recipient.
Healthcare group Blue Cross/Blue Shield takes the fourth spot, with 58 percent of its nearly $3.4 million going to Republican candidates and groups. Again, most of this money comes from the company’s PAC.
The trend breaks with No. 5, Goldman Sachs. Almost $3.3 million in hard money has come from the investment bank, but most of that has been given by individual employees, making it the only one of the top 10 to pull most of its contributions from employees rather than a PAC. That’s not to say Goldman’s PAC has been inactive — it has given just over $1 million — but so far this election cycle, people on the bank’s payroll have given nearly twice as much as the PAC. In total, 61 percent of the money coming from Goldman has gone to Republicans, and the PAC has contributed to dozens of congressional candidates.
A large share of the gifts from Goldman employees have gone to presidential candidates, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) taking in the most with nearly $214,000. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) pulled in $204,000 from the company, while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received $149,000 and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) got $66,000. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has been given just $751 from Goldman employees.
Clinton has received more far more than Trump from each of the top 10 hard money organizations. Five of the 10 have given nothing to Trump at all, while Clinton has received more than $100,000 from three — Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Comcast, in addition to Goldman — and more than $10,000 from six.
The only organization to lean left among the top 10 hard money donors is a labor union. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers slots in just behind Goldman with $2.8 million in total contributions, more than half of it from the union’s PAC.