Swearing off donations from corporate political action committees became all the rage among Democrats during the past two election cycles, but potential cracks in the trend have begun to emerge.
Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat who rejected such contributions in winning her seat in 2018 and getting reelected last month, has changed her position for the coming cycle, representatives of business PACs said. Massachusetts Democrat Seth Moulton also refused contributions from the PACs of businesses and companies during his brief presidential bid, then warmed back up to them as he refocused on congressional races, according to local news reports.
A record 155 incumbents and challengers vowed to reject corporate PAC money during the 2020 campaign, according to End Citizens United, which tracks such pledges.
That stance helped attract small-dollar donations and generated enthusiasm among voters who favor a broad campaign finance overhaul. Candidates also touted the pledge as the answer to complex issues such as health care, arguing that a Congress that was not beholden to corporate interests would focus more on the problems of regular folks. But many candidates lost anyway.
Now, as Democrats face a 2022 midterm cycle in which, traditionally, the president’s party loses seats in the House, incumbents and future challengers are assessing whether the pledges pay off. On the other side, the PACs of companies themselves continue to grapple with diminished clout partly due to contribution limits set long ago that don’t budge for inflation.
So the future of such pledges, along with the influence of corporate PACs, remains uncertain.
“The no-corporate-PAC pledges are a way of virtue signaling, and this can be a powerful political tool,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of the campaign finance overhaul group Issue One. “The real impact in terms of changing the way business is done in Washington has yet to be proven.”
The pledges are easy to circumvent. Candidates and lawmakers may refuse direct donations from company PACs but still accept contributions from trade association PACs, and they may take donations from their colleagues who do accept business PAC money without violating their pledges.
The corporate PAC limit of $5,000 per candidate for each election has not changed since 1974, even as personal donations were indexed for inflation — meaning a pair of corporate executives can give more individually than their company’s PAC.
Micaela Isler, who serves as executive director of the National Association of Business Political Action Committees, said Luria “walked back that pledge going into the next cycle.” Isler expected some other Democrats to consider the same move.
Luria’s chief of staff, Kathryn Sorenson, referred a request for comment to Luria’s campaign, which did not respond to multiple requests over 11 days. Claudia Hogan, an organizer of a Dec. 8 virtual fundraiser that the congresswoman’s campaign is hosting, also did not respond. An invitation to that event suggests that PACs contribute $1,000 to attend and doesn’t mention any rules about PACs connected to specific companies.
“Representative Luria made this pledge to her constituents as a reflection of her values,” Tiffany Muller, president and executive director of End Citizens United, said in a statement emailed by a spokesman. “Breaking it would demonstrate that her values have changed since she’s been in Washington or that she wasn’t sincere to voters in the first place. It will be a heavy burden on her to explain to voters why she is going back on her word.”
End Citizens United endorsed more than 200 candidates in 2020, including many who did not take the no-corporate-PAC pledge. The group did not endorse Luria.
Newly elected Democrats who refuse corporate PAC donations include Mark Kelly of Arizona and John Hickenlooper of Colorado in the Senate as well as Reps.-elect Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia and Cori Bush of Missouri. High-profile pledge-takers who lost included Democratic Senate challengers Theresa Greenfield in Iowa, Sara Gideon in Maine and Cal Cunningham in North Carolina.
Some of the Democrats who helped their party gain control of the House in the 2018 elections and had taken no-corporate-PAC pledges and ran on overhauling the political money system were among those who lost in November. They included Reps. Max Rose of New York, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma and Joe Cunningham of South Carolina. Republicans have not gotten in on the anti-corporate-PAC trend. No House Republicans lost in 2020.
Supporters of the pledge say it’s wrong to connect election outcomes to the popularity or unpopularity of the pledge since it may not have been an issue candidates focused on as they were forced to overhaul their campaigns in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Election Day that Democrats had focused on three top issues: health care, health care and health care.
“Given the results and given how people feel about Washington, that was a strategic mistake for the Democrats not to have talked about money in politics,” McGehee said. The “drain the swamp” mantra has proved powerful for candidates in both parties, she said, citing President Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign and House Democrats in 2018.
Patrick Burgwinkle, a spokesman for End Citizens United, said it’s too early to say.
“There has been a lot of premature analysis of the election results, and we’ll learn more about 2020 as the dust settles, but we’re adding three new senators who reject corporate PAC money,” he said.
He noted, too, that both Democrats in the Jan. 5 Georgia Senate runoffs, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, reject corporate PAC donations.
Hard times ahead?
For their part, company PACs still see a difficult road ahead and expect few lawmakers to reverse their pledges.
“It’s something the community is still troubled by and certainly monitoring,” said Kristin Brackemyre, PAC and government relations director at the Public Affairs Council. For lawmakers who don’t take corporate PAC dollars, Brackemyre said the industry seeks to “find ways to work with them.”
Corporate PAC money comes from donations that company executives opt to give, and most companies give to lawmakers in both parties. Such PACs “should be considered kind of the model for reform, not something that should be abolished,” said Isler, who noted that these donations are all disclosed to the public.
Brackemyre and Isler said company PACs have shifted nearly all events online and expect them to remain virtual into 2021.
“Some candidates are realizing how symbolic the pledge is,” Brackemyre said. “It’s hard for an incumbent to backtrack, but it will be interesting to see about 2022 candidates.”