For some House incumbents, traditional PACs are super

Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill.,  with glasses and black suit on blue background
Over 90 percent of the money raised by Rep. Bobby Rush’s campaign this election came from PACs.

As anyone who has signed up for a campaign or political party’s email updates knows, the pleas to pony up some cash fill the inbox this time of year. While those requests for $3, $5 or $10 contributions can add up for some candidates, for many of them — particularly long-serving incumbents with fairly safe seats — the fundraising trail doesn’t lead to individuals, but special interests in the form of political action committees. Sunlight took a look at which candidates lean the heaviest on traditional PACs to fill up their war chests.

Long before super PACs, normal, garden variety PACs drew the attention of critics and reformers. “PACs give to incumbents,” former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., said on the Senate floor in 1989, “because access to an officeholder is more important than a member’s party, ideology or even voting record.” Even in the days of multimillion-dollar contributors like Tom Steyer and Sheldon Adelson, PACs are still workhorses of the Washington fundraising machinery: They’ve spent $1.1 billion this cycle according Real-Time’s latest tally, almost twice of the total spent by super PACs.

The 10 House candidates most reliant on PAC dollars are all incumbents in safe districts. Seven of the 10 are Democrats, all of whom hail from urban districts.

At the top of the leader board is the campaign to re-elect Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., which received more than 92 percent of its $300,000 in receipts from political action committees, including maximum contributions ($10,000) from the American Society of Anesthesiologists, Exelon and CSX Corp.

The PAC support continues even as Rush is the subject of an ongoing Ethics Committee probe stemming from the reporting into the ties between the Citizens for Rush campaign, a church he founded and the direction of a $1 million grant in 2000 for a community technology center. The Ethics Committee has until Nov. 10 to announce its course of action.

A voicemail left at Rush’s campaign office was not returned.

Senate campaigns are not included in the table above because they file their FEC reports on paper. Those figures won’t be available electronically for several more days.

Relying heavily on PACs for campaign contributions is not limited to these ten by any means. A Sunlight analysis of fundraising numbers finds 201 House members this cycle whose campaigns have received more than half of their contributions from PACs, including members of House leadership like Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

The rubber chicken circuit

PACs make political contributions for a variety of reasons but one of the most important is access. It’s no secret that members spend a sizable chunk of their time in the District fundraising and often times it’s representatives from business PACs or lobbyists that are doing the hosting and helping to scare up funds.

Invitations, like the one below for a $500-and-up “Small, Convivial Dinner” benefiting Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., will often list the members committee assignments as a reference for interested parties.

A Small, Convivial Dinner by Sunlight Foundation

In addition to writing a check to a congressman’s campaign, well-connected Washington PACs may go a step further, rallying funds from others in their social network — called bundling — in order to bring in more than the $10,000 contribution cap allows. That’s exactly what the political action committee of the National Association of Realtors did for Scott last year, according to disclosures from his campaign. The Chicago-based trade association bundled over $22,000 for the Georgia congressman, who sits on the Financial Services subcommittee that oversees government mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

While the chance to rub shoulders with a policymaker over a beverage or frankfurter is no doubt enticing, groups that contribute $1,000 or more for a few minutes of face time may be expecting something more in return.

Come Nov. 5, there will be a lot of congressmen with IOU’s.