Ocasio-Cortez, Romney, Omar among prominent freshmen to launch leadership PACs

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Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY, left) and Ihlan Omar (D-MN, right) are among 24 freshman members of Congress to set up controversial leadership PACs. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As new members of Congress start the business of legislating, many of the freshmen have started to look to advance their careers with the creation of leadership PACs, including liberal rock stars Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).

At least 24 different freshmen in the House and Senate have started their own leadership PACs so far, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Leadership PACs are commonly created by current or former members of Congress as a way to raise money for fellow candidates and gain influence within the party. Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) rise into the ranks of Democratic leadership coincided her forming of PAC to the Future in 2000, which got off to a hot start by doling out $792,800 to Democratic congressional candidates.

Campaign cash to Republican candidates from Majority Committee PAC, by far the largest contributor among leadership PACs during the last two cycles, helped get its owner Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) elected House Minority Leader over Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who does not have a leadership PAC.

Much of the money donated to members’ leadership PACs often comes from corporate PACs, trade associations and labor unions rather than individual contributions. During the 2018 cycle, an estimated 53 percent of itemized contributions to leadership PACs came from business and labor-related PACs.

Still, the corporate dominance over leadership PACs hasn’t deterred some newly-elected progressive Democrats — running on campaigns to reject corporate money — from quickly forming their own.

Already the most well-known freshmen member of the House, Ocasio-Cortez was one of many newly-elected Democrats to reject money from corporate PACs. She recently launched a leadership PAC titled Courage to Change on Nov. 29.

According to a source close to the Ocasio-Cortez campaign, the leadership PAC will follow the standards set out during her campaign, meaning it won’t accept corporate or lobbyist money.

The source also said that the PAC’s primary function won’t be to fund primary challengers to Democratic incumbents and that the PAC was not set up with that intention in mind. Ocasio-Cortez has told supporters she backs the Justice Democrats’ movement to mount primaries against incumbent Democrats that the group says have grown out of touch with their districts.

Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Omar, another prominent new progressive member and no-PAC pledger, formed Inspiring Leadership Has A Name PAC three days after election day. The leadership PAC accepted one $5,000 contribution from American Crystal Sugar Company, a major agricultural cooperative and political player with several Minnesota locations. The cooperative reported nearly $1.3 billion in revenue in 2016.

In a statement to The Center for Responsive Politics, a spokesperson for Congresswoman Omar’s campaign said the PAC does not accept corporate PAC contributions, stating that the contribution is from “an agricultural cooperative, not a corporate PAC.”

One of the first female Native Americans elected to Congress, Rep. Debra Haaland (D-N.M.), opened the Fierce PAC in August 2018. Haaland won her primary in June and was widely expected to win the general in New Mexico’s relatively safe blue 1st District.

In the most recent FEC filing, Fierce PAC raised $37,200 in funds. The top donors, which gave the maximum of $5,000 each, were mostly tribal communities such as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians. The PAC turned around to give $24,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the last couple of days before the general election.

Haaland’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), a prominent gun control activist and another member of the no-PAC group, created the Safer & Stronger Communities PAC, which did not raise any money through the most recent reporting deadline. McBath’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Seventeen of the new leadership PACs were formed by freshman Republicans. GOP leadership PACs routinely raise more than their Democratic counterparts, collecting more than $41 million during the 2018 election cycle while Democrats raised just under $31 million.

Several prominent new Republican members, in both the House and Senate, unveiled leadership PACs. Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) Believe in America PAC, formed the day before election day, raised $27,001 as of the most recent reporting deadline on Nov. 26.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) created the Spirit of ‘76 PAC in September 2018. The leadership PAC raised $67,500 in contributions through Nov. 26, according to the latest FEC filing. It spent $41,775.26, primarily transferring funds to the campaign committees of other Republican candidates.

Vice President Mike Pence’s brother, Rep. Greg Pence (R-Ind.), also formed a leadership PAC called Mustang PAC in June 2018. The PAC raised a massive $80,4011 through the most recent filing deadline. The primary source of the funds, $75,161, came from two transfers from the Greg Pence Victory PAC, a joint fundraising committee, in August and September 2018. The leadership PAC spent $62,366 by the most recent filing deadline, donating to a few other Republican campaigns, but primarily to the Protect the House joint fundraising committee with a $53,365 contribution.

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), who won a special election despite racially-tinged comments, launched her own leadership PAC, Conservatives Harvesting Success PAC, in May 2018. The PAC raised $21,402.28 by the most recent filing deadline. The biggest donors were Joseph and Sue Ellen Canizaro who each gave $5,000. Joseph Canizaro is a prominent New Orleans-based business executive and real estate developer. A $1,000 donation came from the Toyota/Lexus PAC in September 2018.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) created the Let’s Get to Work PAC, run by Salvatore Purpura, a businessman who has overseen several high-profile PACs, including Colbert’s super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.

Leadership PACs have their share of controversies. According to a report from Issue One, a cross-partisan political reform group, “a minority of leadership PAC spending — only 45 percent between January 2013 and mid-2018 — actually goes toward contributions to other candidates and political groups.” Much of the spending instead is used for “stays at luxury hotels, meals at prime restaurants and tickets for highly coveted events, often under the guise of fundraising activities,” the report found.

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