Corporate PACs have been thrust into the political spotlight as more Democratic candidates make rejecting corporate money a central theme of their campaigns. Seven of those congressional hopefuls won their primaries Tuesday.
Those results bring the total number of primary winners who are not accepting corporate PAC contributions to 85, according to the group End Citizens United, which supports an overhaul of the campaign finance system. These candidates are instead relying on donations from individuals and other groups.
Corporate PACs have become targets for those frustrated with the mountains of money influencing politics. But that speaks to a misunderstanding of how these PACs work, said Kristin Brackemyre, a senior manager for PAC and advocacy practice at the Public Affairs Council.
Brackemyre noted that these political groups are regulated and funded by donations from individual employees.
“The corporate PAC is really just representing individual and voluntary contributions by employees of that company,” she said.
And corporate PAC contributions to campaigns are limited. According to the Federal Election Commission, PACs donating to multiple candidates can make a maximum $5,000 contribution for each the primary and general elections.
Adam Bozzi of End Citizens United countered that even though these corporate PACs are funded by individual employees, they still represent the corporations’ interests.
“Individuals can give [to campaigns] for a variety of different reasons, and you know when a corporation gives, they’re trying to buy access” and benefit their own bottom line, he said.
“What these candidates are doing does free them up from a lot of the conflicts over influence and access,” he added.
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Corporate PACs are still spending this cycle. While more candidates are rejecting their contributions, plenty still accept them.
There were 1,708 corporate PACs active in the 2018 cycle as of March 31, through which those groups had spent nearly $239 million (that figure represents total disbursements, not contributions to campaigns), according to the FEC.
But do corporate PACs still influence campaigns even if candidates won’t take their money? The short answer is: probably not.
Corporate PACs are different from super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. Super PACs have to disclose their donors, although there are still ways to hide their donors, but they cannot coordinate with campaigns.
Most corporate PACs do not have their own corresponding super PACs that can launch television ads or send mailers to boost candidates without coordinating with their campaigns, according to Brackemyre.
And most corporate PACs also don’t contribute directly to other super PACs, which play in congressional races.
The Public Affairs Council surveyed nearly 200 corporate PACs in its 2017 Corporate PAC Benchmarking Report, and received 182 responses to a question about their connections to super PACs. Only 5 percent had contributed to super PACs and 39 percent said their company had a policy prohibiting such contributions.
For candidates rejecting corporate PAC money, they still run the risk of being tied to outside money that could pour into competitive races from super PACs — even if those super PACs do not receive money from corporate groups.
The Democratic super PAC known as House Majority PAC, for example, has reserved television air time in several races where the party’s candidates have taken the “no corporate PAC money” pledge.
And even though candidates cannot coordinate with outside groups, Bozzi acknowledged they could still face criticism for outside money bolstering their campaigns.
“Certainly, politics is politics and people will try to muddle any message,” he said. “But when you’re able to say, ‘Go to my FEC report and you won’t find a dime of corporate PAC money in it,’ I think it strengthens your case.”