As more Dems reject corporate PAC money, a Texas Senate candidat - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

As more Dems reject corporate PAC money, a Texas Senate candidate's PAC-free campaign pays off

Posted: Updated: Jun 17, 2018 3:24 PM
U.S. Rep. and Senate candidate Beto O?'Rourke speaks during the March for Our Lives at Cleveland Square in El Paso, Texas. U.S. Rep. and Senate candidate Beto O?'Rourke speaks during the March for Our Lives at Cleveland Square in El Paso, Texas.

WASHINGTON - Rep. Beto O'Rourke said his frustration with fundraising finally boiled over when he was scolded for his vote on a 2014 farm bill amendment.

A consultant admonished the Texas Democrat and said he owed an explanation, not to his constituents, but to a big-money, special interest group that would be disappointed by his vote.

"My explanations are only owed to my constituents ..." said O'Rourke, who represents El Paso. "That was the moment where I said to myself, I don't want to be a part of this anymore.'

O'Rourke is now running for Senate, having sworn off all special interest and political action committee funding. And he is not alone. An increasing number of Democratic congressional candidates are moving in that direction by rejecting donations from corporate PACs.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, refusing PAC money hasn't stopped several of them from raising more money than their opponents. More than 20 Democratic House challengers who have rejected corporate PAC money out-raised GOP incumbents in the first quarter.

O'Rourke is now ahead in fundraising, even in his underdog campaign to oust a well-funded, well-known incumbent, Sen. Ted Cruz, who came in second in the 2016 GOP presidential primary.

He raised more than $6.7 million during the first quarter of this year - more than any other Senate candidate that quarter and a record for a Texas Senate race without self-financing, according to his campaign. He ended the quarter with more than $8 million in the bank compared to $7.2 million for Cruz, who received nearly $1 million from other political committees this cycle.

About 70 percent of O'Rourke's contributions, overall, are from Texas.

"What I think Texans have shown is that (rejecting PAC contributions) actually turns out to be a clear advantage, and something that so many of us have been wanting to see in campaigns for so long,' he said.

Most Americans - 96 percent - blame money in politics as a cause for some or a lot of the dysfunction in the U.S. political system, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll last fall. But candidates don't want to put themselves at a competitive disadvantage as they face not only well-funded opponents but outside spending now pouring into congressional elections.

"If we knew there were ways to raise significant small-contribution money, no one would choose to take special interest money,' said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Even so, some candidates are trying a different way.

More than 140 Democrats and two Republicans now campaigning for Congress have pledged to at least reject corporate PAC funding, and a handful of them have rejected all PAC money, like O'Rourke, according to a count by the group End Citizens United, a PAC that says it's "dedicated to countering the disastrous effects" of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the landmark Supreme Court case that helped pave the way for super PACs.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., doesn't accept corporate PAC money, and also avoided it during his 2016 presidential primary campaign. Thirteen other congressional incumbents, including five Democratic senators and eight House members, are doing the same.

"This is a growing trend we're seeing," said Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United. "There is an effectiveness of this message with voters, which is why these candidates are doing it and because they think it's the right thing to do."

In primaries so far, 36 of those candidates have advanced to the general election and three are leading in still undecided elections. More than 40 others didn't advance, but in more than a dozen cases, the race went to another candidate on the "no-corporate-PAC" list.

After touting his position in ads, Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb's rejection of corporate PAC money turned out to be an asset in his recent special election in Pennsylvania. A post-election poll, commissioned by End Citizens United, showed that stance was the main reason nearly one-fifth of Lamb voters supported him.

O'Rourke, meanwhile, is averaging 9 percentage points behind Cruz, according to RealClearPolitics, in a state that's had a Republican governor for 18 years and two GOP senators for 19 years. He trailed Cruz by 8 percentage points in another poll that End Citizens United commissioned in January, but he gained a 2-percentage-point lead when those surveyed were told about his no-PAC pledge.

"Voters really care about this,' Muller said. "With independent voters, this issue is second only behind keeping America safe from terrorism. It's up there as high as jobs and the economy or lowering health care costs.'

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Early on, O'Rourke said he thought it was "the greatest thing in the world' to have PACs sending in big checks, even without him making a call. During the 2014 election cycle, he took in about $180,000 from committee contributions.

But he grew uneasy about the expectations of some of those groups and the general impact of those dollars on U.S. policy.

"So many of my colleagues spend so much of every day in D.C. courting these special interests and opening the doors to them, and literally receiving written drafts of legislation,' he said. "The average person just cannot compete against that.'

To keep it simple, he said he decided to give up all PAC money, from corporations to good government groups, so there would be no question about his motives. He's finding that not spending time dialing for dollars leaves plenty of time to travel his state. He recently completed his 254-county tour of Texas with a town hall in Gainesville.

"It has completely turned our focus toward the people and being with people,' he said.

It's helpful for candidates hoping to fund their campaigns with small contributions if they come from a wealthy state, if they live near a TV network or if, like O'Rourke, they're in a high-profile race, said Pocan, who rejects some corporate PAC money to his campaign. But he said it's still unclear whether a grass-roots-funded campaign can work in all districts.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC - the 78-member caucus's political arm - announced in April that it would reject corporate donations. Pocan said he and others are analyzing whether they can afford to do the same in their individual campaigns, probably for the next cycle.

"For the first time, there's really a movement," saying candidates shouldn't take corporate PAC money, Pocan said.

O'Rourke said he hopes his campaign will show others, "yes, you can afford to do this.'

He authored the No PAC Act, which would ban candidates from taking contributions from any outside political committee or from forming a leadership PAC. It has one co-sponsor, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif.

O'Rourke said he knows the bill won't pass, at least not this year. Until it does, he's betting on another way to change money in politics: Winning an election like his "without taking a dime of PAC money,' he said.

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