How Corporate PAC Money Gets to Democratic Challengers Who Say They Reject It

Democrats’ narrow path to taking the Senate in 2020 goes through a handful of well-funded challengers, most of whom are banking on a pledge that worked wonders for the party during the 2018 midterms.

The top Democratic challengers want voters and donors alike to know they are rejecting corporate PACs. It’s a central talking point for Democrats in competitive races like Sara Gideon in Maine, Mark Kelly in Arizona and John Hickenlooper in Colorado.

“I am not taking a dime in corporate PAC money during this campaign, because it will always be clear who I’m working for in the U.S. Senate,” Gideon, currently speaker of the Maine House, says in a campaign ad. “The People of Maine.”

For non-incumbents, the pledge to reject corporate PACs is a largely symbolic gesture to indicate a candidate wants to get big money out of politics. The pledge doesn’t become a sacrifice until they’re elected to Congress, as corporate PACs give almost all of their money to incumbents to curry favor with lawmakers.

Symbolic as it might have been in 2018, the pledge may have helped land dozens of Democrats crucial House wins. After getting thwacked by those no-PAC Democrats last year, Republicans intend to portray Democratic Senate hopefuls as hypocritical and dishonest with voters on the subject of corporate PACs in 2020, according to a GOP official familiar with the party’s plans.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) aired an advertisement last month attacking Gideon over her pledge to reject corporate PACs. The ad notes that Gideon’s state-level PAC received money directly from major corporations and corporate PACs. The ad also says that her Senate campaign receives money from Democratic leadership PACs that accept money from corporate PACs.

Gideon has not taken money from corporate PACs. But she has received $53,500 from leadership PACs that take money from PACs associated with major corporations.

Some of the largest checks, $10,000 each, came from leadership PACs affiliated with Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) both of which receive roughly half of their money from corporate PACs.

Top Democrats, like Republicans, fund their leadership PACs partly from PACs representing powerful corporations. One-third of money going to Democratic leadership PACs comes from business PACs associated with corporations, trade associations and other business interests.

Four out of the top five most generous corporate PACs to Democratic leadership PACs, Honeywell International ($179,000), Lockheed Martin ($137,000), General Dynamics ($122,000) and Northrop Grumman ($107,000), are major defense contractors.

End Citizens United, the political group that encourages Democrats to reject corporate PACs, says leadership PAC contributions don’t violate the spirit of the pledge.

“Corporate lobbyists and c-suite executives decide where corporate PAC contributions go and corporate PACs give money to gain access and influence in the halls of power in Washington,” said Patrick Burgwinkle, the group’s communications director. “Leadership PACs give money to help elect more Democrats or Republicans to Congress and the decision on who to donate to resides solely with the member of Congress affiliated with the leadership PAC.”

Major corporations’ PACs regularly give to members of Congress or their less-scrutinized leadership PACs as they push their preferred policies to lawmakers. If a contribution from a corporate PAC to a leadership PAC was meant to be routed to a specific candidate, it would have to be marked as so in FEC filings.

Gideon’s campaign told the Bangor Daily News that the difference in PAC money between the two candidates is one of the “clear differences” in the race. Collins has raised $1.4 million from PACs associated with corporations, businesses and trade groups. That’s compared to one $5,000 contribution to Gideon from PACs labeled “business” by OpenSecrets, the American Association for Justice.

Democrats are hoping Theresa Greenfield can take down Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), pouring $186,000 into her campaign from leadership PACs. Greenfield, a real estate executive, was endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee right after announcing her bid.

Senate Democrats also threw their weight behind Mark Kelly, an astronaut and gun control activists who is the husband of former congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Having raised an unprecedented $13.9 million through September, Kelly has a huge cash advantage over Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.).

Business PACs give upwards of 90 percent of their money to incumbents, so these Democratic challengers aren’t losing much of anything by rejecting their checks. Still, their incumbent opponents certainly have an advantage by being entrenched lawmakers.

In Colorado, Sen. Cory Gardner’s campaign has received a stunning $2.6 million from business PACs, just behind Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for the top spot. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) is right behind him with $2.4 million as he engages in a big money battle with Democrat Cal Cunningham.

The incumbent advantage goes for some Democrats too. Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), both top targets of Republicans, each received more than $1.8 from million business PACs. Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) has taken in nearly $2.6 million from PACs, half of which comes from business PACs.

By End Citizens United’s count, 47 House Democrats and 11 Democratic senators have taken the no-corporate PAC pledge.

That growing list includes some incumbent senators facing reelection in 2020, including Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) as well as Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and his primary challenger Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.).

And many of the House candidates who rejected corporate PACs in 2018 are now incumbents, meaning they are passing up hundreds of thousands of dollars to stick by their pledge. Many of them are top recipients of leadership PAC money, including California Reps. TJ Cox ($104,300) and Katie Porter ($101,105), who face hungry Republican challengers in 2020.

So far this cycle, Democrats overall have taken $7.2 million from leadership PACs, compared to $9.2 million for Republicans. That’s a closer margin than in previous cycles where Republicans have historically given far more through their leadership PACs.

Researcher Andrew Mayersohn contributed to this report.