Washington — Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy don’t have to run for re-election this year, but they are still in the thick of the 2014 Senate political campaigns.
So are several members other members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation, who hope to help erode or eliminate GOP control of the House of Representatives.
The lawmakers are actively raising and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars from their leadership PACs (political action committees). This money, which is separate from their campaign accounts, is donated to help party colleagues and boost lawmakers’ standing in their party.
Blumenthal established his Nutmeg PAC barely a month after he was sworn into office in 2011. The PAC is more active than ever now, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. The Nutmeg PAC raised more than $200,000 last year, some of it from a fundraiser at Yankee Stadium that cost more than $11,000.
The Nutmeg PAC gave nearly $130,000 to fellow Democratic senators who are running tough races this year and to Democrats who are trying to unseat Republican senators.
Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., Chris Coons, D-Del., Al Franken, D-Minn., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., are among the dozens of Democrats Blumenthal has helped through his PAC, which also gave $15,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Blumenthal said he’s stepped up activities to his PAC because he does not have to raise big money for his own campaign this year and because big-money Republican donors, like the Koch brothers, have promised to spend millions of dollars to defeat Democrats.
He said he’s favoring Democrats who took tough votes on gun control legislation, such as Landrieu and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and senators who support legislation he has sponsored.
“It’s mainly colleagues who have been on my side, and I hope will be there in the future,” Blumenthal said.
Murphy’s MurphPAC raised about $185,000 last year and distributed about $53,000 to fellow Democrats. Most were in the Senate or running for Senate, but the MurphPAC also gave $5,000 to the campaign of Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District. Murphy represented the 5th District before he was elected to the Senate. The senator also gave $15,000 to the DSCC.
Leadership PACs have evolved a bit over time, but their purpose remains the same.
The first leadership PAC was created in 1978 by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who sought a subcommittee chair on the Energy and Commerce Committee over a more senior Democrat. Donations to colleagues on the committee resulted in the decision to violate the seniority rule and award Waxman the chair.
For a time, leadership PACs were formed largely by House and Senate leaders and committee chairmen.
Now, 94 out of 100 senators have these PACs, and two-thirds of the House does as well. Every member of Connecticut’s congressional delegation, except Esty, has one. But she could, too.
“It is not a surprise that freshmen will form leadership PACs; it is a surprise that not everyone does,” said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
PACs are so valuable, Ornstein said, because they “enable a lawmaker to build the kinds of bonds with colleagues that help advance careers.”
There’s another benefit, too. Restraints on leadership PACs — including how one may spend the money – are fewer than on any other kind of PAC or campaign account.
“Because FEC rules say nothing about politicians using money for personal purposes, it is possible for politicians to raise money through their leadership PACs that can be spent on all kinds of entertainment, fundraising, or other expenditures that might be political in nature or might not be,” said Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“In fact,” Skelley said, “politicians can abuse the system to use these funds for personal expenditures.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, uses the money she collects in her leadership PAC, the Committee for a Democratic Future, largely to pay for catering, and other expenses of the salons she holds regularly in her Georgetown home, where DeLauro says Democrats mingle with other notable people to discuss policy. She did not give any campaign contributions to colleagues last year. But she did contribute $7,500 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
A leadership PAC has another advantage in terms of raising money, Skelly said. Under FEC regulations, an individual donor can give $5,000 to a politician’s leadership PAC even though they gave the maximum amount to the same politician’s campaign committee, $2,600 for a primary and $2,600 for the general election.
“That means that a politician can get more out of each friendly donor,” Skelley said.
While direct contributions to candidate committees are limited, a politician’s leadership PAC can make independent expenditures on behalf of other politicians’ campaigns that are not subject to legal limits, as long as they aren’t specifically coordinated with a candidate’s campaign.
“This loophole opens the door for safe incumbents to possibly spend large amounts of money on behalf of their political friends,” Skelley said.
While the 2nd District Rep. Joe Courtney’s Husky PAC has not been very active lately, that can’t be said of PACs belonging to Reps. Jim Himes, D-4th District, and Rep. John Larson, D-1st District.
Himes’ Jobs and Innovation Matter (JIM) PAC raised about $146,000 last year and gave $81,000 to dozens of House Democrats, including Esty. Himes is the DCCC’s finance chair. and the JIM PAC contributed $15,000 to that organization and $2,500 to the Connecticut Democratic State Central Committee.
“JIM PAC tends to give to moderate Democrats,” said a Himes campaign spokesperson.
Many of the donations to the JIM PAC came from PACs tied to the financial services and insurance industries.
Larson’s Synergy PAC dates from his days as Democratic Caucus chairman. Larson stepped down from that position last year, but his PAC continues to raise and spend considerable amounts of money.
Last year it raised $145,000 – with the help of fundraisers at golf courses and a California winery — and gave more than $76,000 to Democrats, including a $2,500 donation to Dan Roberti, a Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Esty in a primary for the 5th District seat.
Roberti’s campaign still owes Roberti – who poured a lot of money into the race — more than $459,000.
Leslie Kerman, the assistant treasurer of the Synergy PAC, said Larson formed the PAC “to assist candidates who share his belief that we can achieve a better America by fighting for the working class and ensuring that opportunity exists for every American.”
“As Honorary Chair of Synergy PAC, Congressman Larson plans to continue to help candidates move America forward,” Kerman said.
Larson and other Connecticut Democrats with leadership PACs are likely to also move themselves forward in the party as they raise a lot more money for their Democratic colleagues between now and November’s elections.