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Mark Kelly’s fundraising highlights limits of ‘no corporate PAC’ pledge

Campaign accepted thousands from corporate CEOs, presidents and lobbyists

Democrat Mark Kelly is running for Senate in Arizona. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrat Mark Kelly is running for Senate in Arizona. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When he launched his campaign for Senate, Arizona Democrat and former astronaut Mark Kelly said corporate money “poisons our democracy” and he would not accept corporate PAC contributions.

But Kelly’s campaign accepted thousands of dollars from business executives and lobbyists during the first three months of the year, raising questions about how “no corporate PAC” pledge candidates can actually separate themselves from special interests.

In raising $4.1 million during the first fundraising quarter, Kelly took $185,000 from contributors listed as CEOs of 64 companies, including Walt Disney, Tumblr and Berkshire Hathaway, according to his fundraising report filed with the Federal Election Commission covering January through March of this year.

About $245,000 more came from donors whose occupations were owners, founders, presidents, vice presidents or chief officers. Their companies included Royce Corp., which trades metals and plastics; defense contractor Raytheon; and Maxar Technologies, which specializes in space technology. 

Kelly also received more than $18,000 from nearly two dozen registered lobbyists from such lobbying firms as Akin Gump and Capitol Counsel. Those lobbyists’ clients include such companies as Amazon, Walmart and Comcast.

Kelly is the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an attempted assassination and became a leader of the national gun control movement. His FEC report shows he benefitted from a broad range of other contributors, including actors, artists and authors, as well as educators, scientists and doctors.

Singer Willie Nelson gave $5,600. Documentary director Ken Burns gave $5,600. He even got $1,000 from Phil Lesh, the bassist for the Grateful Dead.


Gray area?  

Kelly’s campaign drew a distinction between accepting corporate PAC money, which is tied directly to a corporation, and individual donations, even if they are from a corporation’s CEO. 

“Mark isn’t taking a dime from corporate PACs because he believes they are corrupting our democracy to benefit their own bottom lines,” said Kelly’s campaign spokesman, Jacob Peters. 

The FEC report bears him out, showing Kelly indeed received no money from corporate PACs. The Center for Responsive Politics found that some candidates who took the “no corporate PAC pledge” have taken donations from trade associations and other “business PACs,” but Kelly has not.

The pledge has been a central theme of Kelly’s campaign to unseat GOP Sen. Martha McSally, a former congresswoman who was appointed to the Senate after losing a Senate race in November.  

Kelly’s defenders say individual donations do not make him beholden to special interests the way PAC money would.

“Every time a leader refuses to take corporate PAC money, it’s a win for our democracy and another blow to the power of special interests in Washington,” said Patrick Burgwinkle, the spokesman for End Citizens United, a group supporting campaign finance overhauls that has endorsed Kelly.

“Individuals contribute to candidates for a variety of reasons, but the only reason a corporate PAC gives money is to benefit the corporation’s bottom line,” Burgwinkle said.

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When asked about donations from corporate executives and lobbyists, Kelly’s team highlighted the large number of individuals — more than 50,000 — who donated to his campaign.

Peters also took aim at McSally for accepting corporate money. The GOP senator took more than $215,000 in corporate PAC donations in the first fundraising quarter, according to her campaign’s fundraising report.

“Senator McSally is as reliant on corporate PAC money as she has ever been — a reward for her supporting their agenda in Washington — while Mark is proud that our campaign is fueled by more than 50,000 individual contributors,” Peters said.

Pledge politics 

The “no corporate PAC” pledge caught fire among Democratic candidates in competitive races in 2018. They used the pledge to win support from swing voters who believe the nation’s capital is controlled by special interests. 

So it’s no surprise that Kelly is making the pledge a pillar of his campaign in Arizona, where independents and moderate Republicans will be key to his victory. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Senate race a Toss-up.

“Partisanship and polarization and gerrymandering and corporate money have ruined our politics, and it’s divided us,” Kelly said in a video announcing his campaign in March.

“I’m not going to take corporate money. I feel that corporate money into campaigns poisons our democracy,” said Kelly. “So I’m going to try to do this as a grassroots effort from folks here in Arizona and across the country.”

In recent weeks, Kelly has grabbed headlines for giving paid speeches to businesses and headlining a fundraiser hosted by lobbyists, first reported by The Intercept. Republicans have sought to capitalize on the coverage by calling his pledge to reject corporate money hypocritical.

Kelly’s defenders note that he is turning down a sizable source of campaign funds by shunning corporate PACs, which gave more than $178 million to candidates in the 2018 campaign cycle, according to the FEC.

The money that corporate PACs give to candidates comes from a company’s employees and not the corporation itself, and contributions are capped at $5,000 per election. Contributions from individuals are capped at $2,800 per election, meaning a married couple such as a CEO and spouse could give $5,600 per election.

Kelly’s team contends that the campaign has been transparent about its donors, while knocking McSally for failing to do so.

“Whether she is intentionally hiding donor information or just breaking the rules, Sen. McSally refuses to meet even the basic requirements for transparency,” Peters said.

In 2017, the FEC notified McSally’s campaign that it needed to provide more information on donors’ occupation and employers. The FEC also approved an audit of McSally’s 2014 House campaign that showed she failed to disclose employment information for hundreds of thousands in donations. 

McSally’s campaign did not list occupation and employer information for roughly 100 donations in the first quarter, noting that information was “requested per best efforts.”

McSally’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

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