PACs stick with incumbents

In an election season full of talk about tea party backlash and voter uncertainty, an old political truism holds: Big money bets safe.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of the federal campaign reports show that political action committees, representing the nation’s businesses, unions and associations, continue to pour money to Georgia’s congressional incumbents. Meanwhile, challengers and first-time candidates scrounge.

Financial disclosures filed for Georgia’s 13 House races show that the delegation’s 11 incumbents have received about $4.9 million of the $5.1 million PACs have donated this election cycle. That’s about 96 percent of all the PAC money. Meanwhile, a handful of candidates in Georgia’s two open races have reported some PAC donations and 39 candidates have reported none at all, as of the last reporting deadline. The next round of campaign reports are due July 8, for the period April 1 through June 30.

So what is going on?

Corporations, business associations and unions are paying for access, said Michael J. Malbin, a founder and executive director of the Washington-based Campaign Finance Institute.

“PACs are not giving to candidates,” he said. “They’re giving to office holders.”

Incumbency may be a bad word among this year’s angry voters, but it translates into power in Washington. And power gets money, regardless of party.

Republican Reps. Tom Price of Roswell and Phil Gingrey of Marietta, don’t have opponents this year — yet still received hundreds of thousands in PAC donations, from banks, health care companies and others.

Other congressmen, like Democrat Reps. John Lewis of Atlanta and Hank Johnson of Lithonia, received the bulk of their campaign funds from PACs and special interests, not individual contributors.

Price has raised about $1.3 million this campaign cycle, about half of it — $576,000 — from PACs. Price defended the donations from the American Bankers Association PAC, the Bank of America PAC, Boeing’s PAC and others, and said he needs the money to compete against Democrats who are backed by left-leaning PACs run by unions and liberal advocacy groups.

Recently, the House Office of Congressional Ethics opened a preliminary review into whether Price and seven other lawmakers — both Democrats and Republicans — were influenced by PAC campaign contributors prior to their vote on financial industry reform legislation. The ethics office has asked lobbyists to supply e-mails and other information regarding contributions that banking-related PACs made to Price, including $29,000 they contributed to him in December. Price voted against the Democratic-led financial reform bill. Price has said the inquiry is “without any merit whatsoever.”

Lewis raised $439,255 from PACs, about two-thirds of all the money he raised in 2009 and the first part of 2010.

Pfizer, Coca-Cola, Google, the United Auto Workers and others all used PACs to give Lewis money. Lewis said PACs are the simplest, easiest source for campaign funds.

“It’s easier to go out and bring together 20 or 30 or 40 people and have a luncheon or dinner or breakfast and invite the representatives from PACs to come, rather than having several small events where you might get $50 here or $100 there.”

Asked about concerns that PACs might use their dollars improperly to influence legislation, Lewis said that’s not the case with him.

“If someone makes a contribution to me, to my campaign, it’s not going to influence me one way or another,” he said.

Johnson acknowledged that a politician is likely to respond to a PAC that has made a big campaign contribution more quickly than an individual voter who hasn’t.

PAC donations “definitely can impact how quickly a member is willing to meet with a representative of that industry represented by a PAC,” Johnson said. “But it doesn’t necessarily impact a [Congress member’s] stand on the issues.

Johnson has been a clear beneficiary of PAC money. In his first election to represent Georgia’s 4th Congressional District, Johnson received almost no PAC money.

This campaign cycle, about $209,000 of the $288,000 he’s raised came from PACs and other special interest groups, according to Federal Election Commission data. Earlier this year, Johnson became a member of the influential House Transportation and Infrastructure committee — a position that will almost certainly yield Johnson even more PAC money in the future.

“I had very few PAC contributions during my first run for office,” he said. “At this point, in trying to stay elected, it’s crucial.”

The PAC donations have more to do with committees assignments than ideology.

Gingrey, a former gynecologist, sits on the House Energy and Commerce committee, which helps shape health care legislation. Much of the $347,000 Gingrey raised from PACs so far this election cycle has come from medical-related PACs such as the American College of Cardiology PAC, the OB-GYN PAC and the American Academy of Family Physicians.

As PACs dole out money to the elected, new candidates running for office find themselves at a disadvantage. Challengers get almost no money and candidates running for open seats get substantially less PAC money than incumbents.

Candidates in races for open seats have received some PAC money. For example, Georgia’s 7th District has an open race this year with the departure of longtime incumbent Rep. John Linder. State Rep. Clay Cox reported more than $23,000 in PAC donations, the most of any candidates in that race. Another candidate, former Linder chief of staff Rob Woodall, has not had to file a financial report yet, but could have PAC donations. Both campaigns declined to talk with the AJC about PAC money.

But PACs usually play it safe.

Their donations often dominate early campaign giving, as they have this time. As the campaigns head toward November elections, contributions from individuals and parties are expected to pick up, as they have in past elections.

Malbin, who had been studying campaign donations nationally for three decades, said incumbents and PACs work closely to bolster each other. Incumbents use their position to make sure PACs come to their fund-raisers, and PACs give to incumbents because they know their money likely will get them access.

Nick Nyhart, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, a Washington organization working to reduce the influence of PACs, said PAC money distorts elections.

“The public is competing with deep pockets for the time and the attention of lawmakers,” he said. “PACs and organized interests have a lot of money; individuals don’t.”

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Congressional campaigns

Georgia candidates who have received PAC money donations this election cycle, according to the most recent campaign filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Candidate District Party PAC donation

Jack Kingston (I) 1st Republican $262,021

Mike Keown 2nd Republican $5,500

Sanford Bishop (I) 2nd Democrat $314,999

Lynn Westmoreland (I) 3rd Republican $122,522

Hank Johnson (I) 4th Democrat $209,340

John Lewis (I) 5th Democrat $439,255

Tom Price (I) 6th Republican $576,268

Clay Cox 7th Republican $23,950

Jim Marshall (I) 8th Democrat $220,800

Chris Cates 9th Republican $13,000

Tom Graves 9th Republican $80,308

Lee Hawkins 9th Republican $61,549

Steve Tarvin 9th Republican $500

Paul Broun (I) 10th Republican $164,004

Phil Gingrey (I) 11th Republican $347,446

John Barrow (I) 12th Democrat $622,515

David Scott (I) 13th Democrat $336,750

Thirty-nine candidates reported no PAC donations. The next financial filing is due in the middle of July. A small portion of the donations include candidate committees, which are similar to PACs.

Source: Federal Election Commission.

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How we got that story

The AJC analyzed Federal Election Commission data compiled from financial reports filed by the campaigns earlier this year. You can, too. Visit www.fec.gov and search by candidate name. In candidate reports, it lists the total amount of PAC money received and breaks down which PACs gave and how much.

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