PACs, special interests and Colorado’s 4th CD

Our Common Values, National Leadership and Rocky Mountain.

The Freedom Project, Every Republican is Crucial, Rely on Your Beliefs.

It may sound like an assortment of college essay titles, but it is in reality just a few of the congressional leadership political action committees, or PACs, that have poured money into Colorado’s 4th Congressional District race in 2008.

Through June 30, more than $650,000 in PAC donations flooded the 4th, which represents Colorado’s rural eastern plains as well as the north Front Range, and is seen as one of the most competitive House races in the country.

By federal law, a PAC — which is organized to raise and spend money to elect officials it supports or to defeat those it does not — can donate a total of $10,000 to a candidate each election cycle. That’s higher than the $4,600 allowed by individuals.

In addition, PACs, which mostly represent unions, business and ideological interests, can give up to $15,000 to any national party committee and political organizations.

In Colorado’s 4th CD, incumbent Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave accepted donations from 210 PACs through the end of June totaling $458,651.85 — or 27 percent of her 2008 election total.

Her Democratic challenger, Fort Collins resident Betsy Markey, received donations from 49 PACs totaling $212,864.17 — comprising 19 percent of total contributions.

“Incumbents typically raise far more form PACs, and everyone else, than do challengers,” said Robert Duffy, chairman of the Political Science Department at Colorado State University. “Incumbents have an easier time being reelected, and PACs, especially corporate PACs, give more heavily to them.”

This giving spree to incumbents is defined by political scientists as “access strategy,where PACs, and the special interests behind them, give to elected officials in office to ensure access to the member in the future, Duffy said.

But that isn’t to say a maximum donation from a PAC to a congressional candidate is akin to buying a vote.

“Do PACs give to candidates because they expect something in return in the future, or do they give to those whose views are compatible and are thus more likely to vote their way anyway?” Duffy said. “I tend to think it is the latter and proving the former is very difficult.”

But the special interests behind PACs do influence public policy and elections in Washington, D.C., and cannot be ignored, either.

Who is giving to whom?

An analysis of Federal Election Commission records by The Colorado Independent shows Musgrave’s largest PAC donations came from the agricultural and banking sectors, groups supporting conservative interests and congressional leadership PACs.

Musgrave, known for her conservative values and her stance against gay marriage, has accepted donations from numerous anti-abortion PACs, including the Susan B. Anthony List Candidate Fund and the Republican National Coalition for Life PAC.

Leadership PACs are started by congressional members separate from their candidate campaigns and are run by elected officials to gain political influence and power.

Often the most successful PACs are run by former congressional members, though, who use campaign donations to influence elected officials, often former colleagues, on ideological or political issues important to them.

In 2008, during an election year when Musgrave has worked to retool her image as more mainstream and in touch with an increasingly moderate electorate, the three-term incumbent has taken money from the most powerful members of conservative minority leadership in Washington.

Five of Musgrave’s top 10 PAC donors are Republican colleagues in the House, including Minority Leader John Boehner, Republican Whip Roy Blunt and Deputy Whip Eric Cantor, who maintain PACs that have donated the maximum $10,000 to Musgrave.

Cantor’s PAC, Every Republican is Crucial, was founded in 2002 after he rose into leadership with the intent to help other House Republicans in close re-election contests.

“It’s Washington, D.C., politics as usual,” said Ben Marter, Markey’s communications director. “It’s the status quo politicians who are giving to her and they don’t want to see the change (in D.C.) the people in the 4th want and that Betsy represents.”

Officials with the Musgrave campaign did not return a request for comment.

But Markey, the former congressional staffer in her first campaign, isn’t without donations from Democratic leadership PACs herself.

TCI’s analysis found that of Markey’s 10 largest PAC donations, four were from PACs run by Democratic congressional leaders, including Majority Whip James Clyburn, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chair of the Democratic caucus, and Rep. Charlie Rangel, the chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. A former field director for Colorado’s Sen. Ken Salazar, Markey has received the maximum $10,000 donation from his Rocky Mountain PAC.

While powerful Democrats might be donating to Markey, it’s the nearly 78 percent of her total PAC donations that have come from organized labor that stands out.

The sector, which encompasses everything from trade associations to teachers unions, has donated $105,500 to Markey through June and makes up five of her top 10 largest donors.

“Betsy is proud of all of the support she has received from working men and women in Colorado,” Marter said. "She knows the struggles working families in the 4th are facing."

In addition to organized labor, Markey’s campaign has attracted donations from abortion rights groups, including more than $5,000 from EMILY’s List, and donations from gay rights organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign.

Because PACs often donate to the opponent of incumbent politicians they wish defeated, Musgrave’s very public stand against gay marriage and abortion could help bring Markey more PAC money from similar groups.

Do PACs influence voters?

The short answer is not really.

PAC money usually represents a small percentage of a congressional candidate’s bankroll and should be looked at with a lens of perspective, said Duffy, the CSU political scientist.

Political committees in today’s form have been around for nearly 60 years and although they influence legislation, they don’t create it. Or in other words, campaign donations may offer PACs an open door to lobby elected officials but they don’t guarantee a vote.

“PAC contributions, especially corporate PACs, tend to reflect members’ committee assignments and their districts (so) agricultural PACs among Musgrave’s biggest donors is understandable, given her district and position on the (House) Agricultural committee, and so too the banking PACs (as) she sits on the Small Business committee,” Duffy said. “Similarly, it’s not odd for a Democrat to have raised a lot of labor PAC money as Markey has.”

Just how much voters think about what PACs and other special interests are donating to a candidate when they go to vote is unknown, but Duffy thinks it’s relatively small.

Although journalists, politicians and college professors might think about PAC donations, average citizens aren’t paying too close of attention to them — they vote on issues that hit closer to home and that have more of a discernible impact on their life.

“I think voters typically care much less,” he said. “Unless there is a scandal like with (now-jailed lobbyist Jack) Abramoff. I’m sure critics will charge there is a direct line between the contributions and (Musgrave’s) voting record, but it’s not that clear cut. Certainly, you can expect the other candidate to make an issue of their opponent’s fundraising, but only rarely does it become an issue (for voters) in campaigns.”

To see a more in-depth list of the top 20 PACs donating to Colorado’s 4th Congressional candidates click here.