By: Simone Pathé and Bridget Bowman
Andy Kim never expected to run for the House. Certainly not against the 19th wealthiest member of Congress.
When he was first considering a bid for New Jersey’s 3rd District, the former national security official didn’t like the questions corporate political action committees wanted candidates to answer. Already troubled by money in politics, Kim decided to reject corporate PAC money.
It doesn’t sound so revolutionary now, with nearly three-quarters of House Democratic recruits in the year’s most competitive races making the same commitment and still raising buckets of money. But at the time, it was a risky move, and one that concerned people advising Kim.
The idea of rejecting corporate PAC money isn’t new — former President Barack Obama did it in 2008, as do a handful of incumbents. What’s unusual this year has been how many House candidates who aren’t self-funders have made the same commitment in competitive races — and just how fast it caught on.
Critics offer a simple explanation: It’s easy for challengers to pass up corporate PAC money since they don’t receive much anyway. But with Democrats favored to win the House majority, this informal pledge may soon be something incumbents have to grapple with, too.
In 2016, just 6 percent of candidates on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue list for top recruits rejected corporate PAC money. This year, 72 percent of Red to Blue candidates — from all ideological factions — have made the same commitment.
So what changed?
For starters, Democrats started to close the gap between policy and politics when it came to campaign finance.
While Democrats believed money in politics should be limited and more transparent, “they still didn’t believe that voters cared at all about this message,” said Tiffany Muller, executive director of End Citizens United, a liberal PAC that supports a campaign finance overhaul.
ECU did its own focus groups and polling in early 2017 and discovered voters did care about money in politics. President Donald Trump’s election and his “drain the swamp” mantra tapped into that sentiment.
“We weren’t connecting with them in that gut-level way,” said Muller, who would know a thing or two about moving voters. The former deputy political director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was the first openly gay public official in Kansas, where she helped defeat an amendment to the state’s constitution prohibiting gay marriage.
ECU found voters didn’t just think money in politics was a problem; they thought it was affecting their day-to-day lives. In other words, it wasn’t just a policy issue, it could be a winning political issue too.
The special elections in the first half of 2017 tested that theory. Montana Democrat Rob Quist rejected corporate PAC money and made it a central part of his campaign, which attracted small-dollar fundraising and energized the grassroots in a state Trump won by 20 points.
Quist lost that race, but the single-digit margin helped convince Democrats that candidates might not need PAC checks to be competitive fundraisers.
ECU started applying that lesson to the midterms that fall, when it rolled out additional House endorsements. Besides Kim, it backed Jason Crow in Colorado, Dean Phillips in Minnesota and Anthony Brindisi in New York, all of whom pledged not to accept corporate PAC money. The group had already endorsed Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who has rejected all PAC money but shattered Senate fundraising records anyway.
In the first quarter of 2018, some high-profile Democratic senators and 2020 hopefuls rejected corporate PAC money, too, giving the platform more legitimacy.
A major boost came when Democrat Conor Lamb won a special election in a Western Pennsylvania district that Trump carried by 20 points.
ECU was the first group to endorse Lamb, who also became the first candidate to put his pledge in mailers and in television ads. In ECU surveys after the election, the most common reason voters supported Lamb was his support for Medicare and Social Security, followed by his stance on corporate money.
“That was the moment where we were like, ‘Oh yeah, this is a real thing,’” Muller said.
Lamb and other candidates have framed their pledge as broader than a campaign finance issue.
“Very few people will say to me when I knock on their door that campaign finance reform is their No. 1 issue,” Michigan’s Elissa Slotkin said on a press call with other ECU candidates last month. Voters tell her that politicians care more about the health insurance companies than they do their constituents.
But it wasn’t until late spring and summer that this movement caught on in Washington, D.C., and in the press, Muller said, by which time 60 or 70 challengers had already come out against corporate PAC money.
These candidates did get pushback from members of Congress — and some still encounter lobbyists who pressure them to go back on their pledges.
“I got a lot of angry phone calls from senior Democrats,” Slotkin said. Democratic elected officials told New Jersey’s Tom Malinowski his stance would make the campaign harder. Similarly, Kim was told to consider all the resources he’d be giving up if he won and ran as an incumbent.
South Carolina’s Joe Cunningham doesn’t take any PAC money. (He’s had to return checks to ECU.) His own consultants thought he was crazy and starred in a TV ad for him saying as much.
But even with so many candidates now rejecting PAC money of some kind, there’s still skepticism amongst some D.C. lobbyists and fundraisers, whose business model depends on incumbents taking the money.
Colorado’s Crow has had at least two recent interactions with lobbyists who asked him if he intended to go back on his pledge once he got elected.
“It just stuck out to me as frankly everything that’s wrong with our politics right now,” he said.
Some candidates, like Malinowski and Crow, confess that they could have raised more money had they accepted corporate PAC money. But others, like Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger, see it as a net benefit.
“The amount of people who have donated to my campaign who have never donated in the past has more than made up for money from corporate PACs,” she said on the ECU press call.
Democrats certainly haven’t struggled to raise money this year. But it remains to be seen whether that’s sustainable in 2020.
“This could really be a problem not this cycle, but next cycle when Democrats have a huge map to defend and a lot of candidates in competitive seats who are leaving a million dollars on the table,” said one Democratic lobbyist, who argued that rejecting corporate PAC cash, which is fully disclosed, shouldn’t necessarily be a priority for overhauling campaign finance.
The pledge these candidates have taken is already affecting how campaigns are funded.
New York Democrat Max Rose isn’t accepting donations from lobbyists, and both he and Muller predicted that will be the next pledge to spread.
Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus’ Democracy Reform Task Force, thinks a longer-term solution is necessary, such as a system to match small donations with public funds, to keep candidates competitive.
More than 100 Democratic candidates signed on to a letter last month “to put Congress on notice” and demand that leaders address the issue.
But any campaign finance overhaul is unlikely to become law with Republicans expected to hold on to the Senate and with Trump still in the White House.
Even if a proposal stalls in a divided Congress, candidates who have rejected corporate PAC money say they will keep their promises.
“There’s two options here. One is Max continues to maintain his federal lobbyist and corporate PAC pledge and contribute as a member of Congress,” Rose said. “Or two, Max Rose is no longer a member of Congress.”