PACs, special interest groups tighten grip
The rising cost of running for public office has forced candidates to increasingly turn to special interest groups and political action committees for financial support, a Business Journal review of 2012 campaign filings shows.
Analysts warned that as PACs and super PACs become more prominent in electoral outcomes, it falls on voters to hold officials accountable to their constituents and not just to the causes that in many cases helped fund their respective campaigns.
“The cost of running a political campaign has spiraled up in the last few years,” said Diane Generous, a Connecticut-based political consultant who worked on Steve Obsitnik’s most recent campaign for U.S. Congress. “It’s not necessarily a positive thing, but it’s what you have to face as a candidate.”
The race between Sen. Chris Murphy and Republican challenger Linda McMahon in Connecticut was the second-most expensive Senate race in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. McMahon’s campaign spent $49 million on the race while Murphy’s campaign spent $10.2 million, according to data submitted by the campaigns to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
The race between Rep. Jim Himes and Republican Steve Obsitnik for Connecticut’s 4th District ranked among the state’s most expensive congressional contests.
In that race, Himes’ campaign spent $1.9 million and Obsitnik’s spent $1.4 million.
Each of the candidates’ costs were less than in the previous two 4th District races, however.
The majority of campaign costs stem from TV ads, mailers and staff salaries. Connecticut races are historically more expensive than other states, primarily due to the state’s proximity to New York, where advertisements must cut through national television clutter.
Each of the four campaigns devoted between 30 percent and 65 percent of their expenditures toward advertisements and 4 percent to 15 percent toward mailings and postage, based on revised FEC data.
The four campaigns spent a total of at least $8 million on products and services provided by businesses based in Connecticut. Generous, who has worked with a number of political campaigns over the years, said it costs money to communicate with voters, which requires the support of donors.
“Donations, whether they’re political or charitable, are a way of aligning yourself with a cause or individual,” Generous said. “As far as PAC donations go, I think they’re an excellent vehicle for a candidate to get to know a company that maybe they haven’t visited with before. Whether or not a PAC decides to donate is another issue.”
Based on the Business Journal analysis of campaign donations and expenditures, Murphy received a combined $1.6 million from roughly 300 organizations, including a high concentration of PACs associated with worker unions for teachers, machinists, health care workers and government employees. Himes received about $1 million from 250 PACs, many of which are associated with prominent banking, investment and insurance companies in Connecticut and New York.
In contrast, Murphy’s and Himes’ opponents received very little to no PAC support. McMahon, who famously self-funded the majority of her campaign, didn’t disclose any donations from PACs. Obsitnik received about $51,000 from PACs, with most related to Republican interest groups.
With the presidential inauguration over and the last of the newly elected members of Congress sworn in, it’s time to start keeping an eye on how well Connecticut politicians live up to their campaign promises, said Donald Greenberg, a political science professor at Fairfield University.
Murphy and Himes both campaigned on getting Americans back to work and growing businesses. But based on how much support each candidate received from PACs associated with specific companies and employee groups, Greenberg said Connecticut voters should be watchful of any preferential treatment aimed toward those wealthy and high-powered donors.
“In elections, it’s important to know where the money is coming from and how the candidate’s behavior is in respect to that,” Greenberg said, who teaches undergraduate political science. “We can’t automatically say anything is wrong, but we should raise our suspicions whenever a candidate takes a large amount of money from any set of particular interests.”
Greenberg said taking a PAC donation doesn’t mean a candidate will act inappropriately once elected, but that it does influence a candidate’s thoughts whether they want it to or not. At a time when campaigns are getting more expensive however, donations are a necessity to running a campaign. It takes money to communicate with voters. After an election is over, Greenberg says it’s up to the public to make sure candidates lives up to their campaign promises instead of “handing out favors.”
“If someone is nice to you, you have a natural human desire to think more kindly of them,” Greenberg said. “It doesn’t mean you’ll act inappropriate. But you’re more likely to give favors to your friends than your enemies.”
Elizabeth Kerr, spokeswoman for Himes, said the Greenwich Democrat has been an advocate for campaign finance reform and the overturn of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, a Supreme Court decision that allows for unlimited spending by outside interest groups on campaigns and advertising.
“I think we can all agree that there’s too much money in politics right now,” Kerr said.
“Jim would love to see the money taken out of politics,” she added. “But he recognizes the reality of the current system and knows that he has to raise money to communicate with voters.”
Kerr said Himes has a good relationship with the business community and it would make sense that they would support him. About 25 PACs donated the limit of $10,000 to his campaign, including PricewaterhouseCoopers, UBS, Travelers Insurance, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Ernst & Young and Deloitte.
Phone calls and emails to Murphy’s spokesman were not returned. Roughly 50 PACs donated the maximum amount allowed to his campaign.
Kerr stressed that Himes will meet with any constituent who requests an audience.
“Whether or not people agree with every vote, they agree that he’s been thoughtful in the decisions he’s made,” Kerr said.