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Nunes tops Ways and Means fundraising as GOP weathers PAC ‘pause’

California Republican leverages star power on panel he hopes to lead

California Rep. Devin Nunes, who raised $1.43 million in the first quarter, says he’s worked hard to build a national donor network.
California Rep. Devin Nunes, who raised $1.43 million in the first quarter, says he’s worked hard to build a national donor network. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

California Rep. Devin Nunes and his fellow Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee outraised their Democratic counterparts in the first quarter of the year, despite many corporate donors hitting the pause button on giving campaign cash to GOP lawmakers after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

Nunes, a leading contender to succeed retiring Texas Rep. Kevin Brady as the top Republican on the tax-writing panel next Congress, raised $1.43 million for his campaign account from January through March, according to Federal Election Commission filings, up from $1.22 million during the first three months of 2019.

In recent years, Nunes raised his profile for fiercely defending Donald Trump and has emerged as a top-tier fundraiser in Congress. His $26.8 million haul for the 2020 campaign cycle put him behind only Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise, and just in front of progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

So far, Nunes is outpacing his first-quarter totals from the last cycle despite donations from corporate and industry PACs dwindling to almost nil in his case. The top Republican on the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, Nunes brought in a mere $2,500 from employees of health insurer Centene Corp. By comparison two years ago, PACs gave him $119,000, according to FEC records.

Centene’s check came in on Jan. 5, just before the violent insurrection that shook the Capitol and subsequent votes to certify the Electoral College results. In light of those votes, numerous companies said they’d reevaluate their giving to Republicans who objected to certain results. Nunes was among 12 out of 18 Ways and Means Republicans who voted to sustain at least one electoral objection on Jan. 6-7.

New star system

Nunes says he’s worked hard to build a national donor network that he keeps informed through podcasts. The 31 podcasts he’s done since the November elections included such themes as election security, the “Russia Hoax” and the wave of “socialist” spending by Democrats.

“It has to do with, just the way that you raise money now is changing,” Nunes said in an interview. “There’s less and less reliance on corporate PACs and that sort of thing.” The Center for Responsive Politics’ database shows Nunes got 95 percent of his fundraising in the last cycle from individuals, and more than half came in contributions smaller than $200.

Including Nunes, 11 House members hauled in more than $10 million in the last cycle, with many of those coming out of national politics’ new star system: for example, Reps. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif.; Jim Jordan, R-Ohio; Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y.; and Katie Porter, D-Calif. One Republican who flipped a Democratic seat last year, California’s Mike Garcia, also hit the $10 million mark.

No House candidate had broken the $10 million threshold until former Minnesota GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann, a conservative icon and 2012 presidential hopeful, did so in the 2010 cycle. The feat remained a rarity until the 2018 midterms, when six did it.

“The entire fundraising scale has been blown over the last couple of cycles,” CQ Roll Call elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales said. “President Trump energized donors in a way we hadn’t seen” on both sides of the aisle.

Contributions to House Ways and Means members were down across the board in the first three months of 2021 versus the same period in the last cycle, tracking a general lack of in-person fundraising opportunities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s been some turnover on the committee, and the panel grew by one member at the outset of the 117th Congress to reflect Republican gains in the midterms. But the average total contribution per Ways and Means member dipped by nearly 18 percent overall from first quarter to first quarter.

Democrats’ totals dropped by more than Republicans’ on average — 21 percent for Democrats and 16 percent for Republicans. Take Nunes out of the equation, and GOP donations dropped by nearly 24 percent per member. Overall, Republicans outraised Democrats in the first quarter by $5.29 million to $3.95 million, despite having seven fewer panel members, though that advantage is erased without Nunes.

The total Ways and Means GOP advantage over Democrats was also larger in the first three months of this year than it was at this stage of the 2020 cycle — $1.35 million to $972,000 — a trend that could bode well for midterm gains given GOP successes in the last election.

Other than Nunes, the only Ways and Means Republicans to outraise themselves compared to two years earlier were Darin LaHood of Illinois, Tom Rice of South Carolina, Ron Estes of Kansas, Tom Reed of New York, Lloyd K. Smucker of Pennsylvania and Kevin Hern of Oklahoma.

LaHood and Reed were among those who voted to certify the electoral results. Reed — second only to Nunes on the committee in campaign contributions, at $648,000 in the first quarter — carved out a niche over the past year as a leading moderate and co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus. His political career is on hold or worse, however, after he announced his retirement in light of sexual harassment allegations.

Rice, who voted to object to certifying the election results, voted to impeach Trump the following month on charges of inciting the riot that ensued on Jan. 6.

Smucker and Hern are new on Ways and Means this year, which usually lends itself to greater fundraising by virtue of the sweeping influence that panel has over taxes, trade and health care policy. Even so, their PAC donations dropped from the first quarter of 2019, as have those of every Ways and Means Republican.

Steep PAC declines

Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., had the steepest drop in first-quarter donations from 2019 to this year, from $461,000 to $72,000. His PAC donations dropped from over $244,000 down to zero. At one point, Kelly was rumored to be prepping a bid for the top GOP slot on Ways and Means, but last week said he wasn’t interested.

Kelly is by no means alone when it comes to getting less PAC money so far this year. Out of nine GOP panel members at this time two years ago who took in six figures’ worth of PAC money, only three hit that mark this year: LaHood, Brady and Georgia’s Drew Ferguson.

Florida’s Vern Buchanan, who’s challenging Nunes in the race to succeed Brady, fell just short at $94,500. Buchanan voted to certify the electoral results, and though his campaign committee took in over $200,000 less than the same period two years ago — when he was second in contributions only to Nunes on Ways and Means — he’s still in fifth place this year on the 43-member panel at $376,000 in the first quarter.

Nebraska’s Adrian Smith, also vying to replace Brady, was near the bottom at a relatively paltry $43,000. But Smith has nearly $1.1 million in unspent cash and no debt; Buchanan’s committee has just $332,000 in cash on hand and $625,000 in loans, though he’s the third-wealthiest House member and could conceivably cover the debt himself.

Over the last few cycles, Smith has given more to GOP campaigns, with $972,000 sent to the National Republican Congressional Committee and $1.1 million overall to Republican candidates since 2017 through his campaign committee and other fundraising vehicles. That’s approaching Nunes’ $1.5 million during that time frame; records show Buchanan doling out just $154,000 to his colleagues, by contrast.

Whither the chairman?

Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., took in fewer donations than three other panel Democrats in the first quarter: Illinois’ Brad Schneider, Nevada’s Steven Horsford and Florida’s Stephanie Murphy.

Neal’s campaign account took in nearly $200,000 less than it did during the first quarter of 2019, when he was the top fundraiser among Ways and Means Democrats.

But even then he ranked just 85th among House members and candidates over the entire 2020 cycle, according to FEC data, a lower figure than one might expect from the powerful Ways and Means chairman. That was the lowest ranking by a Ways and Means chairman seeking reelection since Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., in the 2004 cycle.

So far in the first quarter of 2021, Neal ranks 132nd.

But committee chairmanships, even for a major player like Ways and Means, have diminished in importance when it comes to fundraising, Gonzales said.

“Having a national profile is a more valuable fundraising asset than being on an important committee,” he said.

Herb Jackson contributed to this report.

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