Freshmen rake in cash through PACs

Freshman lawmakers are diving headfirst into the Washington fundraising game and are amassing war chests at leadership political actions committees (PACs) that could help them climb the ranks on Capitol Hill.

Roughly 70 of the lawmakers elected to a first term in the midterm elections of 2010 are now affiliated with a leadership PAC, according to a review of Federal Election Commission (FEC) records conducted by The Hill.

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Freshman Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) have raised more than a million dollars each for their PACs this election cycle, while in the House, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) and other first-termers have pulled in more than $100,000.

Congressional leaders have used leadership PACs to raise money for their party’s candidates, but they also have become a fundraising tool used by most members of Congress to build alliances with colleagues, candidates and K Street.

Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, said leadership PACs have become part of the “infrastructure of politics.”

“It gives people another chance to give … It gives you more standing in Congress,” said Biersack, a former FEC official. “It has often been the case that members use these funds for political travel, to make their name across the country.”

Topping the list of freshman fundraising is Rubio, whose Reclaim America PAC raised almost $1.4 million through the end of August. More than $1.2 million of the money, all raised this election cycle, went to operating costs like travel, fundraising and direct mail.

Alex Conant, a Rubio spokesman, said the senator is proud of Reclaim America PAC’s success and has used the committee’s resources to travel the country in support of Republican candidates.

“Our trips have included a lot of public events and fundraisers for our friends. Like everybody else, we’ve had to spend money to raise money, and because Sen. Rubio has a widespread base of grassroots support, we’ve been able to do quite a bit of direct mail. We’re hopeful that this investment of time and money will result in more conservatives winning this fall,” Conant said.

Rubio has donated to the campaigns of several GOP Senate candidates, such as Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts, Josh Mandel in Ohio and Richard Mourdock in Indiana.

Reclaim American also made a $15,000 contribution to the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which is trying to win back the Senate majority.

Portman — who, like Rubio, was considered a candidate to be Mitt Romney’s running mate — has pulled in close to $1.2 million through the end of August via his leadership PAC, the Promoting Our Republican Team PAC.

Roughly $266,000 of the money pulled in by Portman’s PAC has been donated to other political candidates and committees, according to FEC records. An aide to the senator said that figure would rise to more than $396,000 after the PAC’s September report to the FEC is made public later this month.

Aides to other lawmakers also emphasized that the September FEC filings will show more leadership PAC contributions to candidates.

Rep. Allen West’s (R-Fla.) Guardian Leadership PAC, for example, has raised almost $36,000 but only donated a total of $3,500 to three GOP candidates so far, helping Jesse Kelly, Adam Hasner and Mia Love. West’s chief of staff, Jonathan Blyth, said the next round of FEC filings would show that the PAC has contributed to at least a dozen more candidates.

Blyth said West formed the PAC for the “sole purpose [of helping] elect non-incumbents” who “have previous military experience” or are African-American to encourage “more diversity in the House of Representatives.”

Denham has raked in the most money of all House freshmen in the 2012 election cycle. His leadership PAC, Jeff PAC, has raised more than $123,000 through August, including more than $59,000 in transfers from his own campaign committee and joint fundraising committees.

Dave Gilliard, Denham’s campaign spokesman, said that the lawmaker formed the PAC because he’s “focused on making sure Republicans maintain a majority in the House.”

Democrats new to Capitol Hill are getting into the leadership PAC race as well. Rep. Cedric Richmond’s (La.) Who Dat PAC has raised close to $35,000 this cycle, while Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s (Conn.) Nutmeg PAC has raised almost $144,000.

Unlike campaign accounts, leadership PAC funds can be spent on things that aren’t campaign-related.

Freshman Rep. Jeff Landry’s (R-La.) Cajun PAC, for example, contributed more than $38,000 to the sponsor of an event called the Washington Mardi Gras Ball.
“Washington Mardi Gras is one of the biggest annual events in D.C.,” said Brent Littlefield, Landry’s campaign strategist. It’s a multiday event “allowing the people of Louisiana to feature the state within D.C., attended by some of the biggest players.”

Louisiana’s state and federal government officials as well as donors come together every year — Feb. 2, 2013, is the next event — to “mix with [political] players in D.C.,” Littlefield added.

Up to the end of June, Cajun PAC had raised more than $119,000 for the 2012 campaign cycle. Littlefield said the PAC was set up to provide transparency for the financing of the Mardi Gras event.

Watchdog groups have long criticized leadership PACs as having a corruptive effect on Washington and say they are used to circumvent ethics rules.

“This is all a way to buy good will and face-time with politicians and power players,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center. “Those who use leadership PACs get access.”

Some in Congress have pushed to tighten the rules on leadership PACs.

Last year, Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) introduced legislation to ban personal use of leadership PAC funds, while Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) offered a bill to stop campaign committees, including leadership PACs, from hiring lawmakers’ family members. Neither bill garnered co-sponsors or a floor vote this Congress.