Image by Kanan Shah for COURIER
Image by Kanan Shah for COURIER

Rejecting corporate PAC donations proved wildly successful for Democrats in 2018. Of the 40 seats that the party flipped that year on their way to a House majority, 27 were won by candidates who refused to take a dime of corporate PAC money. 

When Sara Gideon launched her campaign for the United States Senate, she was quick to differentiate herself from her opponent, Maine’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins.

In her campaign announcement video, Gideon, a Democrat, called out Collins for accepting more than $1 million in campaign contributions from drug companies and the insurance industry between 1995 and 2018. She also criticized Collins’ 2017 vote to pass the GOP’s $1.5 trillion tax cut, which she described as a bill where “almost all of the benefits went to the corporations and the wealthy”—an assessment that has been backed up by several studies

Using these arguments as a starting point, Gideon, the current Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, has consistently centered her Senate campaign around limiting the influence of special interests and corporations in Washington, arguing that they “have too much say” and that “politicians are taking their money and then refusing to take any action on the issues that matter.” 

Sara Gideon
House Speaker Sara Gideon, D- Freeport, a candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks at a “Supper with Sara” campaign event at the Poulin-Turner Union Hall, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020 in Skowhegan, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Painting herself as a reformer, Gideon wants to require the disclosure of all dark money donors, supports the movement to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision—which allows unlimited corporate and union spending in federal elections—and has sworn off all money from Corporate Political Action Committees, or Corporate PACs for short. Corporate PACs are tax-exempt organizations that allow corporations to pool together campaign contributions from employees and then donate those funds directly to candidates in the name of the company, up to a limit of $5,000 per candidate. 

In refusing donations from these groups, Gideon is following in the footsteps of dozens of Democratic House candidates who ran in 2018 on anti-corruption platforms that involved refusing corporate PAC donations. The strategy proved wildly successful: Of the 40 seats that Democrats flipped that year on their way to a House majority, 27 were won by candidates who refused to take a dime of corporate PAC money. 

RELATED: Freshmen Democrats Take Aim at Corporate PACs

Now, Gideon and several other leading 2020 Democratic Senate candidates have picked up that baton as they try to win back the Senate from Republicans, who currently hold a 53-47 majority.

Rejecting corporate PAC money is no small feat, given the outsized influence of corporations over political campaigns. In the 2018 cycle alone, corporate PACs made more than $600 million in political contributions, dwarfing contributions from all other types of PACs, including Labor and issue-focused groups, according to the Center for Responsible Politics. This includes $178 million that was donated directly to candidates, the highest amount of any kind of PAC. PACs connected to corporations without stock contributed another $7.4 million to candidates. 

Critics of corporate PACs, including Gideon, argue that by dumping money into elections, they are trying to buy influence over politicians and affect what legislation is passed.

“Whether we’re talking about health care, the cost of prescription drugs, or climate change, you can look directly at the influence of drug or insurance or oil companies and see why nothing is getting done,” Gideon told COURIER via email. “I am not accepting any money from corporate PACs because I think it’s pretty clear to all of us that Washington is broken, and I want to be crystal clear that I’ll be working for Mainers in the Senate—not special interests.”

Collins, by contrast, has accepted more than $2 million in contributions from corporate PACs during this cycle, the seventh highest total of any lawmaker in the House or Senate. Despite taking corporate PAC money, Collins was significantly outraised by Gideon in the first quarter of 2020. Gideon brought in $7.1 million during the first quarter, compared to Collins $2.4 million. Thanks to small dollar donors, Gideon has fought her way into what is now described as a “toss-up race” by the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election newsletter that analyzes races. 

The Growing No Corporate PAC Movement

Gideon’s ideas for reform are broadly popular among voters. A 2018 Pew Research Center report found that 77% of voters agreed that “there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations” can spend on political campaigns. Nine in 10 voters also said it was “very” or “somewhat” important that major political donors not have more influence than others; only a small share of the public believes that to be the case today.

Only about a quarter (26%) of respondents said that the statement “people who give a lot of money to elected officials do not have more influence than others” describes the country very or somewhat well, while 72% said it does not describe the country well.

In more straightforward terms: Voters have a cynical view of politics and believe that big money donors and corporations have too much influence in politics. This view of how “money corrupts our political process” isn’t far off from the truth, according to Patrick Burgwinkle, communications director at End Citizens United, a political action committee which shares Gideon’s goal of overturning Citizens United. The group has also donated to Gideon and several other Democratic candidates who have promised to oppose big money in politics.

“Corporate PACs can give thousands of dollars to members of Congress and members of the Senate, and in addition to the money they’re giving, they’re also getting face time with the members and with the members’ staff,” Burgwinkle told COURIER. “They’re able to connect their corporate lobbyists with the offices and make their priorities heard so when legislation comes up before the House or the Senate, corporations and corporate lobbyists are already deeply involved in the process whereas regular folks back home are just not getting that same access to their members of Congress.”

By rejecting corporate PAC money, Burgwinkle argues, candidates can make it clear that they’re not influenced by corporations or businesses—an idea that resonates with voters and provides convincing evidence that the candidate is not corrupt or bought by industry.

“Rejecting corporate PAC money sends a powerful message to voters about who a candidate will fight for in Washington. Americans believe Washington is corrupt and they are looking for new leaders who will stand up to corporate special interests,” Burgwinkle said. “We saw that in the House in 2018 when Americans elected dozens of reformers to the House in tough swing districts, and we believe we’ll see the same thing in the Senate in 2020.”

Accusations of Hypocrisy

Where Burgwinkle sees candidates who reject corporate PAC money taking a smart, principled stand, many Republicans (and some Democrats) see hypocrisy. Among those taking this position is the Collins campaign, which pointed out that Gideon had previously accepted corporate PAC money during her previous campaigns for the Maine state house.

“I would point out that Sara Gideon’s apparent distaste for corporate PAC money is new,” said Kevin Kelley, a Collins campaign spokesman. “As Speaker of the Maine House, she maintained a leadership PAC of her own that was not only filled with corporate PAC money but also contributions directly from corporations themselves such as pharmaceutical companies, a pipeline company, and many large, out-of-state corporations.” 

Kelley—and others—have also pointed out that while Gideon does not take money from corporate PACs, she does accept money from leadership PACs that accept corporate money. These leadership PACs, which are associated with incumbent lawmakers, often redirect money to help candidates challenging incumbents. Gideon, for example, received $10,000 from leadership PACs affiliated with Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM), both of which received roughly half of their donations from corporate PACs. 

“Sara Gideon says one thing, but does another,” Kelley said. “She says she won’t accept corporate PAC money, but she has taken more than $100,000 from leadership PACs that accept corporate money.”

Kelley did not comment on Collins’ own acceptance of corporate PAC money. 

Burgwinkle believes this is exactly the point and argues that Republicans are accusing Democrats of using some kind of loophole to distract and mislead voters. He argues that corporate PACs have no input over how a candidate’s leadership PAC chooses to spend or donate its money, and that it’s a stretch to think they can exert influence over a candidate like Gideon, who ultimately receives that money from a leadership PAC.

“Corporate PACs give money to gain access and influence in the halls of power in Washington, while leadership PACs give money to help elect more Democrats or Republicans to Congress,” Burgwinkle said. “The decision on whom to donate to resides solely with the member of Congress affiliated with the leadership PAC.”

Burgwinkle isn’t the only person who believes there’s a difference between accepting corporate PAC money and money from leadership PACs. Andrew Mayersohn, a committee researcher at the Center for Responsible Politics, told PolitiFact in 2018 that candidates who receive money from an elected official’s leadership PAC are more likely to feel indebted to the elected official than the company who donated to the leadership PAC.

The Path to A Senate Majority Rolls Through No Corporate PAC Candidates

Perhaps no 2020 Senate candidate has proven the upside of refusing corporate PAC money more than Mark Kelly in Arizona. Kelly, who is looking to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Martha McSally, has become a fundraising powerhouse, raising $11 million in the first quarter to bring his total cash-on-hand to nearly $20 million. McSally, meanwhile, raised only $6 million between January and March, and has only $10 million cash on hand. This includes nearly $1.4 million raised from corporate PACs this cycle. 

Kelly’s campaign said the Democratic candidate’s fundraising success showed that Arizonans wanted a senator who was not beholden to special interests and large corporations.

Mark Kelly
Image via Gage Skidmore

RELATED: Senate Democrats To GOP: Help People, Not Corporations Only

“Our campaign is fueled by 300,000 individual contributors chipping in an average of $43 bucks at a time because they want to see Mark’s approach of making decisions based on data and facts—not politics and corporate PAC checks—representing Arizona in the United States Senate,” Kelly campaign spokeswoman Maria Hurtado said via email. “Arizonans will know that when he is working on an issue like lowering prescription drug prices, he will be working for them, not a pharmaceutical company who is writing corporate PAC checks.”

Kelly’s campaign has quickly become one of the most watched in the nation, owing to the candidate’s unique history as a fighter pilot and astronaut, and McSally is now viewed as one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents. A recent poll from Phoenix-based firm OH Predictive Insight found Kelly nine points ahead of McSally.

RELATED: Kelly Just Blew McSally Out Of The Water By $5 Million

Kelly, like Gideon, has accepted money from leadership PACs, but his campaign said that if elected, he plans to enact campaign finance reform limiting how much money corporations could spend on elections. He also wants to increase transparency so voters know who is funding advertisements.  

“Mark knows that in order to solve the issues that matter most to Arizonans like lowering prescription drug prices and addressing a changing climate, we have to reduce the influence of corporate money in politics,” Hurtado said. 

The McSally campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

Across the country in North Carolina, Democrat Cal Cunningham is also in a “toss-up” race. Like Kelly, Cunningham outraised his opponent in the first quarter of 2020 despite refusing corporate PAC money. The army veteran and former state senator raked in nearly $4.4 million, more than doubling the amount ($2.1 million) raised by incumbent North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis. 

Like Gideon and Kelly, Cunningham also leaned heavily on small-dollar donors: Ninety-seven percent of his fundraising haul came from donations under $200, and the average amount of each grassroots donation was just under $26, according to his campaign.

Tillis still holds a substantial cash-on-hand edge—$6.4 million compared to Cunninham’s $3 million—and has benefited hugely from corporate PACs. Since 2015, Tillis has received more than $3.2 million in donations from corporate PACs, the second highest amount of any senator, behind only Sen. Mitch McConnell. 

Citing Tillis’ embrace of corporate PACs, Cunningham campaign spokesperson Aaron Simpson said “the contrast in the North Carolina Senate race couldn’t be clearer.”

“Cal Cunningham’s campaign is focused on building a strong, grassroots coalition that can win, while Thom Tillis continues to rely on corporate PACs to fund his flailing re-election campaign,” Simpson told COURIER via email. “Thom Tillis has made it clear he’ll look out for those interests, instead of North Carolina’s in the Senate, which is exactly why North Carolinians are eager to elect Cal.” 

Cal Cunningham
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham speaks to supporters during a primary election night party in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The Tillis campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but Cunningham, it’s worth noting, has accepted donations from leadership PACs that received corporate donations and has also accepted individual donations from corporate CEOs. End Citizens United sees a distinction here, however: Corporate PACs exist to benefit the company, while the motivation of an individual executive may not align with that of his or her company. 

“Individuals can give to candidates for any reason,” Burgwinkle told Politifact in November. “That candidate could align with (the CEO’s) values,” on non-business issues such as reproductive rights or foreign policy.

It remains to be seen whether Tillis’ campaign attacks Cunningham for this, but one thing is clear: The race is becoming increasingly competitive. A recent poll from Public Policy Polling found Cunningham with a 9-point lead. Republicans appear to have acknowledged Tillis’ seat is now in real jeopardy and the Senate Majority Fund, a Super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, plans to spend $21.8 million in television ads to boost Tillis in the fall. 

Along with John Hickenlooper in Colorado, the trio of Gideon, Kelly, and Cunningham are widely viewed as Democrats’ best hopes for winning control of the Senate. But in recent weeks, Democrats have also begun to expand the Senate map and pour resources into Iowa, where Democratic challenger and real estate executive Theresa Greenfield is taking on incumbent Republican Sen. Joni Ernst.

Greenfield is considered an underdog in the race, but Ernst’s approval rating has plummeted 10 points, from 57% in February to 47% in March, according to polls from the Des Moines Register and Mediacom. Another poll, released Monday from Public Policy Polling, found Ernst leading Greenfield by only one point, 43-42. While Ernst remains the favorite to win her race, the new polls paired with Greenfield’s solid fundraising numbers have given Democrats hope. 

Greenfield brought in $2.3 million in the first quarter, only $400,000 less than Ernst, who raised $2.7 million. Ernst still holds a comfortable cash-on-hand advantage, $6.5 million to $3.8 million, due in part to her acceptance of more than $1.4 million in corporate PAC donations during this cycle.

Greenfield, meanwhile, has called for a ban on corporate PAC donations and wants to overturn Citizens United. She criticized Ernst for taking $1.9 million in corporate PAC donations over the course of her 2014 and 2020 Senate campaigns and accused her of failed to serve Iowans’ best interests.

“Hardworking Iowans deserve leaders who will always put them first,” Greenfield told COURIER in a statement. “Senator Ernst said she’d be different, but she’s taken more than $1.9 million from corporate PACs and it shows in the votes she takes at the expense of working families across our state—like passing massive tax breaks for big pharma while refusing to support letting Medicare negotiate for lower prescription drug costs.” 

The Iowa GOP was quick to hit back at Greenfield, with the same critique Collins’ campaign leveled at Gideon. 

“Theresa Greenfield continues to spew more blatant lies and hypocrisy,” said Aaron Britt, spokesperson for the Republican Party of Iowa. “Not only does Greenfield take money from corporate-funded leadership PACs and bankroll her campaign with a half-million dollars from corporate CEOs, executives and lobbyists, but Greenfield also benefits from millions in dark money spending.”

Greenfield has accepted $262,800 from leadership PACs. That is just a fraction, however, of what Ernst has received from corporate PACs. The Iowa GOP did not comment on Ernst’s acceptance of corporate money. 

Greenfield appears to be building momentum in her race, as the Cook Political Report shifted the race in Democrats’ direction last month, moving it from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican.” In another sign that Republicans are nervous about Ernst’s seat, the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund has already booked $12.6 million in fall television ads in Iowa. Democrats have also announced a $13.1 million investment in fall advertising in the state, building off the party’s existing spending of more than $3 million.

RELATED: Could Democrats Take Back The Senate? New Polls Say Yes.

The size of these investments indicates both parties increasingly believe the Senate majority could hinge on Iowa. If Democrats wind up winning that majority, Burgwinkle believes it will be in part due to their No Corporate PAC money pledges, which Republicans have largely declined to take. When asked why this was the case, Burgwinkle said “you can follow the money and follow their votes to see who they’re representing.”

“The Senate challengers in 2020 are offering a different path, [they are] people who will be accountable to voters in those states, as opposed to corporate special interests,” Burgwinkle continued. “I think that choice that’s going to be facing voters in November is why so many of these incumbent Republican senators are in so much trouble, because there’s more scrutiny on how they’ve been voting and who those votes have benefited and time and time again, the answer is not regular Americans, but corporate special interests.”