They’ve expressed skepticism about Medicare for All and free college, cut back on talk of DACA and DREAMers, and tiptoed around social issues like transgender rights. But when it comes to campaign finance — and the move to reject corporate PAC money — many leading Democrats in red and purple districts are in step with national figures like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand.
In 2016, for example, just three candidates on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” list, challengers the party is backing to contest seats in Republican-held districts, said they wouldn’t take money from corporate PACs.
This election cycle, that’s jumped to more than 50%, according to End Citizens United, a group that wants to change current campaign finance rules.
For most Democrats in House races, rejecting corporate PAC money isn’t much like what Sanders did in 2016, when he essentially eschewed the entire traditional fundraising apparatus in favor of small donors. For one thing, these Democrats were unlikely to receive much corporate money to begin with, especially when running against incumbents — and most still take donations from other kinds of PACs, and are helped by super PACs.
But it’s a sign of the resonance of that Sanders message, and one that’s increasingly taken off among leading candidates in swing districts in 2018 — those who are looking to court independents, as well as the energized Democratic base.
By the time California Sen. Kamala Harris said in April, after some equivocating, that she would no longer take corporate PAC money, dozens of Democrats vying for House seats in red districts in states like Wisconsin, Kansas, and Minnesota had already taken the pledge. Conor Lamb touted his rejection of corporate PAC dollars after his narrow victory in Pennsylvania in March.
“It became imperative for me — if you want to do things differently, one of those things is saying ‘I’m not taking corporate PAC dollars,’” said Elissa Slotkin, a moderate Democrat running in a Michigan district won by both Donald Trump and Mitt Romney.
“People on the ground in my district feel like the system in Washington is fundamentally broken, at many levels, and one of the things that always comes up is they believe congressmen and women are bought and sold by corporations that give them big chunks of money,” Slotkin said.
Few people vote based solely on whether candidates take a specific type of PAC money. But Democrats say they hoping to appeal to a broader sense among voters — one that was stirred up in many of their districts by Trump — that Washington is bought and sold, corrupted by the wealthy.
“There’s a thread that connects Trump and Bernie Sanders, both of whom used a different articulation of the same message — that the system is rigged against you, and I won’t be beholden to anyone but myself,” said Dean Phillips, a Democrat running to claim a vulnerable seat in Minnesota who has said he will reject all PAC money. “Both of those men tapped into something that I’m now trying to carry on even further.”
Experts point out that PAC money typically makes up just a third of the dollars that most House candidates rake in, and corporate PACs — which are subject to $5,000-per-candidate limits — are an even smaller slice.
“It sounds really good, but when it comes down to it, it’s just messaging and packaging,” said Sarah Bryner, the research director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan tracking group. “They have very little to lose.”
Slotkin is hoping to win in Michigan's Republican-leaning 8th District by running on kitchen-table issues like the economy, health care, and education. But talking about corporate money, she said, falls into that category, too.
Take the opioid crisis: Slotkin points to donations Republican Rep. Mike Bishop received from two drug companies that are being sued by several Michigan counties over their marketing of opioids.
“If you tell the average person that Mike Bishop claims that he cares about opioids, but takes a ton of money from the pharmaceutical companies we’re suing, it rubs people the wrong way,” Slotkin said. “They lose faith in the system.”
In a Minnesota district with high state and local tax bills, Phillips has zeroed in on his opponent Erik Paulsen’s vote in favor of the Republican tax bill as the prime example of the influence corporate PAC donations. The bill caps the amount of state taxes that individuals can deduct — leading, Phillips argues, to steeper tax bills.
“He voted against his constituents,” said Phillips of Paulsen, an incumbent in a district that hasn’t elected a Democrat since the 1960s. “That was in no small part swayed by corporate interests — they were the biggest beneficiaries.”
Logistically, rejecting corporate PAC money is much easier for insurgent House candidates like Slotkin and Phillips, who are already unlikely to get the donations in the first place. It’s a far more difficult proposition for incumbents, especially in the Senate, where PACs are more likely to donate and candidates must raise much larger sums to compete.
With the exception of a few big national names like Sanders and Warren, most incumbents aren’t capable of raising large quantities of individual donations off of their email lists. In 2018, the Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents — Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly — have taken in significant quantities from corporate PACs.
The shift toward rejecting corporate PAC money — and the increasing pressure on Democrats to move in the same direction — might have unforeseen consequences for the party, said Bryner, potentially transforming the types of candidates that it runs.
“The kind of people who can reject money from big corporations altogether are people like Donald Trump,” Bryner said: wealthy candidates.
Phillips, for his part, is a millionaire liquor heir whose district — the wealthiest in Minnesota, ripe for individual donations — has made the prospect of rejecting PAC money altogether even easier. He drives around his district in what he calls a “government repair truck.”
Phillips has called on his opponent to take a pledge he calls the “Minnesota Way,” which involves rejecting corporate PAC money, among other campaign finance reforms. Though Phillips said he hasn’t yet self-funded his campaign past the $5,000 individual contribution limit and in-kind donations, he said he plans to inject more of his own money if his opponent doesn’t swear off PAC dollars.
“Erik Paulsen will determine what I contribute,” Phillips said. “If he doesn’t take the pledge, I surely will make up the difference in what I believe we need.”
If candidates reject corporate PAC money, the other feasible alternative for the party is picking people who raise large sums of money from small-dollar donors, Bryner said. That’s helped in part by new organizations like Daily Kos and Swing Left, which vacuum up small individual donations and hand them out to progressive candidates after their primaries.
But that can lead to candidates who are forced to be “nationally focused, rather than regionally,” Bryner said, especially in non-wealthy districts.
There has been a sharp uptick in those types of candidates for Democrats in 2018. Slotkin, a former Defense Department official, has outraised her incumbent opponent for three quarters in a row and racked up endorsements from the likes of Joe Biden.
Voters in the heartland, though, don’t always favor candidates who have gotten surges of national attention, and individual donations, from the coasts. Randy Bryce, better known as the Iron Stache, raked in money from across the country after a viral ad announcing he was challenging House Speaker Paul Ryan in Wisconsin. But Bryce, who has rejected corporate PAC money, is facing a credible challenge in the primary from a longtime teacher, Cathy Meyers.
And for Democrats railing against corporate PAC money but accepting other donations, the details can be messy.
When she announced she was rejecting corporate PAC money, Slotkin reamed her opponent, Bishop, for taking money from the drug company McKesson. His campaign quickly shot back: She’d gotten a $2,000 donation from the campaign of top House Democrat Steny Hoyer. And on the same day, her opponent’s campaign said, Hoyer had taken in $2,500 from McKesson.
Molly Hensley-Clancy is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Molly Hensley-Clancy at email@example.com.
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