Democrats are rejecting corporate PACs: Does it mean anything?

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Democratic Rep.-elects Ilhan Omar (pictured, front) and Dean Phillips (background) were among 50 Democrats elected this cycle that pledged to reject corporate PACs. (MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The ever-increasing influence of money in federal elections makes rejecting corporate money a difficult proposition. But it turned out to be a successful strategy for a group of Democrats elected in November, some of whom were locked in expensive toss-up races.

Fifty-two members of the 116th Congress — including 50 Democrats and 35 new members — pledged to reject money from corporate PACs before, during or soon after the 2018 election cycle.

Of the Democrat-dominated list, 32 members received little-to-no money — less than $10,000 each — from business-related PACs during the 2018 election cycle, according to new data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

CRP classifies trade association PACs that represent various industries as “business PACs,” as they are mostly bankrolled by dues paid by the corporations they represent.

A large number of those pledging to reject corporate PAC money followed through on their promise. But with Democrats bringing in unprecedented sums from individual donors — and outraising Republicans by a projected $300 million — did they even need PAC money?

To PAC or not to PAC

The winning Democratic candidates that rejected PACs didn’t struggle to find cash, averaging $5.5 million in total contributions, $4.3 million of which came from individual donors.

Correlating with the nearly 90 percent win rate for the House candidate with more money, only three of the 44 successful House Democrats to take the pledge — T.J. Cox (CA-21), Lucy McBath (GA-06) and Elaine Luria (VA-02) — were outraised by their opponents.

“There are a number of people around the campaign finance world that come to the conclusion that you’re not giving up that much by giving up PACs,” said Dr. Steven Billet, director of the legislative affairs program at George Washington University.

PACs are giving more to Republicans than they did in the past, Billet noted, to the tune of $268 million to the Democrats’ $225 million. Another reason the PAC money might not have been on the table to begin with is that corporate PACs tend to give most of their money to incumbents. Each of the top 50 biggest recipients of PAC dollars among House candidates were incumbents — and most of the Democratic candidates swearing off corporate PACs were challengers.

“Well, they’re all incumbents now,” said Adam Bozzi, communications director at End Citizens United, the group that led the charge to get Democratic candidates to reject corporate PACs. “They made the pledge. People bet on them. If you didn’t think it was a sacrifice, it is now.”

Whether or not the Democrats’ ATM of individual donor dollars can keep running remains to be seen, but individual donors appear to be overwhelming PACs when it comes to giving.

Under current contribution limits, a couple is allowed to give more to a candidate ($5,400) per election than a PAC is ($5,000). PACs have given out a midterm record $494 million this cycle to congressional candidates, but the number is dwarfed by the $1.7 billion given by individuals through mid-October.

The National Association of Business PACs — an organization that lobbies on behalf of PACs — argues the contribution limits for PACs are outdated and far too strict, creating an unfair disadvantage for business PACs.

“The center of gravity for campaign contributions has really changed over the last 15 years,” Billet said. “Unless we change the laws to put an escalator in place for traditional PACs, every election cycle, individual contributors will become more attractive relative to PACs.”

Symbolism or substance?

Though most Americans are concerned with the influence of money in politics, not everyone is impressed by the anti-PAC movement. Scott Blackburn, research director at the right-leaning Institute for Free Speech, which advocates deregulating campaign finance rules, called the pledge “nothing more than virtue signaling.”

“Rank-and-file members of Congress do not raise significant sums from corporate PACs, making them very easy to ‘refuse,’” Blackburn said. “This is particularly true since these same members still take donations from other groups, which, in turn, accept corporate PAC donations.”

Among those groups are Leadership PACs, from which the winning no-corporate PAC Democrats took a total of nearly $2.95 million this cycle. The PACs, run by members looking to raise money for their fellow party candidates in order to gain leadership positions, are funded almost entirely by corporate and trade association PACs.

A report from Issue One found that “$3 of every $5 raised by leadership PACs since January 2017 has come from PACs, many of which are connected to the largest companies, trade associations and labor unions in America.”

The PACs for Honeywell, UPS, AT&T and Northrop Grumman were the top four contributors to these leadership PACs, giving nearly $5 million in total.

Incoming House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer’s AmeriPAC: The Fund for a Greater America — the largest Democratic Leadership PAC this cycle — gave tens of thousands to the anti-PAC members, with Jared Golden (ME-02) and Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11) the largest recipients.

Bozzi said leadership PACs are another issue that merits discussion on their own, but argued they don’t bring the same pay-for-play scenarios as corporate PACs.

“The real concern is the influence — you’re telling your constituents that a corporation won’t hold a check over your head,” Bozzi said.

How much influence can a $5,000 check buy? That’s difficult to unravel.

One thing is for certain: corporate PACs are an issue, but not the biggest issue for campaign finance reform groups such as End Citizens United. The group’s ultimate goal, after all, is to nullify the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that opened the floodgates to unlimited amounts of so-called independent expenditures.

But candidates can’t control what outside groups spend and aren’t supposed to coordinate with outside groups by federal law. Rejecting corporate PACs was the best thing they could do, Bozzi said.

“It was a way for these candidates, who were not members of Congress, who could not sponsor bills, to say, ‘here is one thing that is in my control that I can do,’” Bozzi said. “While it’s true it’s not the biggest problem or largest amount of money, but it was something in their control that they could do and they were doing it to demonstrate to voters that they were serious about reform.”

That’s the symbolism. The substance, Bozzi said, is already on the way with H.R. 1, a large package of bills that would limit big money in politics, among other election and ethics changes.

“The very first bill introduced in the House is an anti-corruption and clean elections bill, and that is not a coincidence — that is a direct result of these candidates running on a platform of taking on the system,” Bozzi said.

Members of the no-corporate PAC list declared their independence from corporate PACs at various times during and after the 2018 election cycle. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.), for example, took $350,200 from business PACs this cycle but announced after the election he would reject the money in the future.

Small sums of less than $10,000 from business PACs could be attributed to an error with CRP or FEC data or could have been refunded but not yet reported by the FEC. Larger sums, such as the $421,142 accepted by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) — who pledged to reject corporate PAC funds in July — are difficult to credit to an error.

Most members of the anti-corporate PAC coalition accepted money from other groups classified as PACs, such as union PACs and ideological PACs. The two Republicans on the list, Francis Rooney (FL-19) and Phil Roe (TN-01), and Democrats David Trone (MD-06) and John Sarbanes (MD-03) took in $10,000 or less from PACs in total.

Several more Democrats took in $20,000 or less from all kinds of groups classified as PACs, including Ilhan Omar (MN-05), Joe Cunningham (SC-01), Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), Dean Phillips (MN-03), Lori Trahan (MA-03) and Ro Khanna (CA-17).

One surprising member of the no-PAC club is Utah Sen.-elect Mitt Romney. The former 2012 Republican Presidential nominee took in a net of zero dollars from PACs and refunded all of the PAC contributions he took in, according to FEC data.

He did transfer $1.2 million from his Presidential campaign — which was funded by more than $1 million from PACs — to his Senate campaign but didn’t take in any new PAC money this cycle, despite not making any apparent public pledges to reject PAC dollars.

Romney did not respond to a request for comment on his refunding of PAC money before publication.

Alex Baumgart and Kaitlin Washburn contributed to this report.

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