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Defense Industry Funds Flow to Contenders for Key House Chairmanships

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Thornberry; Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala.; Forbes; McKeon; and Turner speak at a news conference last year. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

In politics, money flows to power. Apparently it flows to the potential for power, too.

Four of the top five candidates for the chairmanships of the House Armed Services and Intelligence panels have raised considerably more money this election cycle than they did at a similar point in 2012. The same four have also raised much more money from the defense industry than before – in some cases, more than doubling their takes.

Most of them, too, have raised more money in the first full quarter since the departures of the incumbent chairmen became official, and donated more to other candidates and GOP party committees than in the last cycle.

CQ Roll Call requested campaign finance data for each of the aspiring chairmen and their leadership political action committees from the Center for Responsive Politics.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship: Members of Congress know where to go to find campaign money, and the industries they oversee by virtue of their committee assignments are usually among the most productive in terms of contributions,” said Viveca Novak, a spokeswoman for the center, a non-partisan organization that tracks money in politics. “If there’s a possibility that a lawmaker will be chairman of the committee, that’s just extra leverage. But the companies, their executives and their lobbyists probably don’t need to be asked; they know the deal.”

Some of the aspirants for the gavels acknowledged that was partially true. But they also point to other reasons for trends in their campaign fundraising.

Reps. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., are vying to fill the Armed Services leadership vacancy left by the impending retirement of Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif. Republican Reps. Peter T. King of New York, Devin Nunes of California and Mike Pompeo of Kansas are vying to replace retiring Mike Rogers, R-Mich., atop the Intelligence panel.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., also has been mentioned as a possible Intelligence chairman candidate, but currently serves as House Veterans Affairs chairman and Capitol Hill sources said he is divided between the two roles. Rep. Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio, has also been mentioned as a possible Armed Services chairman, but he is more openly campaigning for the Oversight and Government Reform gavel. Neither’s office answered requests for comment.

The Numbers

Thornberry, Forbes, Nunes and Pompeo each have raised at least 30 percent more through the first six quarters of the 2014 election cycle than they did over same period of 2012. Only King — who was Homeland Security chairman through 2012 — has raised less. Nunes has raised the most overall: $2 million.

Thornberry, Nunes and Pompeo have more than doubled in the current election cycle the amount they got from the defense sector over the same period in the 2012 election cycle, and Forbes has reaped 40 percent more, while King’s dipped. Thornberry has received the most overall — $344,350.

Thornberry, too, saw the biggest leap from the most recent fundraising quarter than ended in June compared with the same quarter in the 2012 cycle, 84 percent. Forbes and Pompeo also saw increases over that period.

McKeon announced his retirement Jan. 16, but rumors of him leaving Congress were circulating well before then, all the way back to last summer. Rogers’ announcement on March 28 came as more of a surprise, but his potential departure from the committee had been a subject of discussion dating back to a potential Senate run that he ruled out last summer. Rogers also had been mentioned as a potential nominee for national security posts in the Obama administration.

Forbes, King and Pompeo also have distributed more checks to Republican campaigns and party committees than in 2012, with Pompeo upping his efforts the most, from $6,000 in contributions to colleagues in 2012 when he was seeking just his second term to $95,285 in the current cycle. Nunes has donated the most to Republican causes, despite a drop since last election cycle: $541,922. Thornberry’s donations also fell.

“Lawmakers who aspire to leadership posts and chairmanships often try to build goodwill by contributing to their colleagues, either from their own campaign accounts or from leadership PACs,” Novak said.

Thornberry had made a bid in 2010 against Rogers for the Intelligence chairmanship before Rogers won it, and sources at the time said that one of the handful of reasons Rogers got the edge was because he was perceived as a better fundraiser for the party.

The Whys

Representatives of several of the would-be chairmen declined to comment on the record.

Thornberry said the increase in contributions from the defense industry is “common sense.”

“Defense folks reading the tea leaves think I have a good chance of becoming next chairman, so more of them contribute more to my campaign,” he said. “I don’t think that takes rocket science to figure out.”

Thornberry said he has often raised money from the defense industry as a side effect of his long-time focus on the issue. But he added that there was more to it than that.

“For each of our races, you have to pay attention to what’s happening back home,” he said. “I spent significantly more money in the primary than I spent in any primary ever, not as much because of the opposition but because of the environment. There’s tremendous frustration with Washington and what President Obama is doing. That means that I think even in a seat that is regarded as safe for a Republican, doesn’t mean it’s relatively safe for any particular person. We all have to pay attention to that.”

With the primary behind him, Thornberry said, “I suspect at the end of the day I’ll give away more than I ever have before.” Aides said he has been traveling to districts on behalf of candidates and is scheduled to do a number more stops.

Like Thornberry, King said he hasn’t sought out to raise money from the defense industry. As for his drop from 2012, “I would say that being chairman always brings in more contributions.”

But he also said he had $2.7 million in the bank and didn’t need to raise as much as more vulnerable candidates. “There are other guys who are running who need the money,” he said. “I don’t raise it unless I have to.”

Running for Intelligence chairman isn’t the same as other panels, King said, because it’s a select committee where the House Speaker, in this case John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, makes the choice. “The extent of my campaigning, by the way, was to say to John, ‘My name’s being mentioned. I’d be very interested.’ He said, ‘So noted.’ That was the extent of our conversation,” King said. “John knows enough about me one way or another.”

Pompeo faces a tougher primary opponent in former Rep. Todd Tiahrt than some of the other Republican incumbents.

“As the national security community has seen Mike lead on the intelligence committee on issues like Guantanamo Bay, fighting terrorism, and ensuring our intelligence warriors, it is natural he would receive support to continue those efforts,” Pompeo’s communication director, J.P. Friere, said in a statement addressing the contributions from defense interests.

A congressional source with a stake in one of the races said that generally the defense contributions to prospective chairmen reflect both efforts to seek out that funding and industry money finding its way to them independently.

“From my perspective we’re not pushing more to defense than we are anyone else,” the source said. “We’re pushing them all, all the time.”

(This story originally appeared on

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