Leadership PACs place early bets on hot races

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Iowa candidate Theresa Greenfield is the top recipient of leadership PAC money among Democratic Senate candidates (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

With each election cycle, entrenched Washington lawmakers must decide which of their colleagues will get a gift in the form of campaign cash.

Nearly every member of Congress controls a leadership PAC, committees that often solicit contributions from wealthy individuals and PACs that have already given the maximum to the member’s campaign. Lawmakers frequently contribute cash from their PAC — and their campaign — to build favor with their colleagues or to boost candidates locked in a close race. 

Some lawmakers are more popular than others. And some of the top recipients don’t even have a seat in Congress –– yet. 

Top recipients of campaign and leadership PAC money
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The top recipient of campaign cash among Democratic Senate candidates is a pig farmer who has never held elected office. 

Iowa Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield raised a whopping $137,500 from Democrats and their leadership PACs within less than 30 days of her campaign announcement. That’s significantly more than the incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) has raised from Republicans — $105,300. 

Senate Democratic leadership announced they would back Greenfield immediately after she announced her bid to unseat Ernst. The establishment support came unusually early, leaving other Democrats weighing a bid disappointed. 

Greenfield ran for Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District in 2018 but dropped out of the primary race following revelations that her campaign manager forged signatures to get her name on the ballot. But Democrats have thrown their early support behind Greenfield’s Senate bid — she received maximum $10,000 contributions from several senators’ leadership PACs, including that of Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.).

Such strong leadership PAC support for a challenger this early is rare — members of Congress typically prefer to give to their deeply entrenched colleagues — but not unprecedented. 

In Michigan, Republicans are hopeful John James can pull off a win against Sen. Gary Peters. James lost to Sen. Debbie Stabenow by 6 points in November, but Republicans are betting he has a better time against the lesser-known Peters. James pulled in $83,500 from Republicans, including $10,000 from the leadership PAC for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). On the other side, Peters took home $128,300 from his colleagues. 

McConnell is the top recipient of campaign cash from his fellow members, absorbing 14 maximum $10,000 contributions from his fellow senators’ leadership PACs. Both McConnell and Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), the top two recipients, will meet well-funded challengers in 2020.

Vulnerable House candidates rake in cash

Things couldn’t have gone much better for Democrats in California last November. With Democrats flipping seven Republican seats and taking complete control of the historically red Orange County, the California GOP was effectively wiped out.

It’s no surprise then, that freshman California Democrats are bringing in major campaign cash from fellow members. Reps. Katie Hill and Katie Porter received the most campaign cash from fellow members — $121,300 and $115,000 respectively — and fellow California freshmen Gil Cisneros and T.J. Cox also make the top 10. 

Each of the new faces received the maximum $10,000 from leadership PACs run by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). That includes Cisneros, a Navy veteran and lottery winner who signed a letter opposing Pelosi’s speaker bid after narrowly winning his race.

Pelosi hasn’t been as forgiving to other vulnerable freshmen who opposed her. Her leadership committee, PAC to the Future, hasn’t given to anti-Pelosi freshmen Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.), Max Rose (D-N.Y.), Ben McAdams (D-Utah) and Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.). All of them face challenging toss-up races come 2020. 

Although House Republicans hope to play offense in 2020, they’ll need to defend a few seats of their own. 

Republicans were looking at Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) as a crucial member given his narrow win in 2018, and they gave him more campaign cash than any other member. But Hurd announced last week he would retire at the end of his term rather than face reelection, potentially complicating Republicans’ plans.

Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Fla.), Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), Jamie Herrera Buetler (R-Wash.) and Don Bacon (R-Neb.) all received more than $100,000 from fellow Republicans. These members held onto their seats in tight races last November and will likely take on well-funded challengers in 2020. 

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