U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan might be more attuned to the realities of modern fundraising than the Nolan camp and party leaders recently indicated. Nolan quietly launched a leadership political action committee earlier this year, suggesting that the 8th district congressman knows that he has to step up his fundraising efforts.
Most members of Congress, including those in the Minnesota delegation, maintain a so-called leadership PAC, a legally non-connected committee that allows members to raise large sums of special interest money with few restrictions on how those funds are spent.
The one thing incumbents can’t spend the funds on is their own campaign and they typically use the money to provide financial support to political parties, candidates and colleagues, subject to contribution limits.
Nolan recently told MPR that he doesn’t care to spend time as “an entry level telemarketer dialing for dollars,” reflecting a long-held attitude towards fundraising which no doubt frustrates colleagues who are sending along money to keep the Nolan campaign afloat.
Talking points aside, Nolan appears to have been nudged down the path of self-sufficiency by party leaders taking a tough love approach with their wayward child.
On Mar 5, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced the first round of Frontline members and did not include Nolan on the list of endangered incumbents, an omission that seemed odd given his weak fundraising and the competitive nature of the race.
That same day, Nolan for Congress treasurer Jim DeChaine signed paperwork establishing Nolan’s leadership PAC, Restore Democracy.
Restore Democracy was officially registered with FEC on Mar 11 and the Agency noted that the committee failed to file its April quarterly report, for the period Mar 11 through Mar 31.
According to the July quarterly report (Apr 1 through Jun 30), the committee raised $17,500 from just four donors. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers donated $5000 on May 8, United Transportation Union $5000 on May 28, Lockridge Grindal Nauen $2500 on Jun 18 and American Crystal Sugar $5000 on Jun 18.
On July 15, Nolan for Congress posted its best fundraising quarter to date for the cycle, bolstered by $33,000 sent by colleeagues in the closing days of the reporting period. In addition, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s leadership PAC, Democrats Win Seats, acted as a conduit for contributions totalling more than $15,000.
Yet Nolan still fell behind Republican challenger Stewart Mills and was added to the Frontline program on July 18.
Restore Democracy is not connected to Nolan’s principle campaign committee, so it can accept donations from political committees and individuals who have already sent the maximum allowable contributions to Nolan for Congress. Those funds cannot legally be spent to directly benefit Nolan’s campaign, but can be used to meet his obligations to colleagues and the party and keep the special interest money flowing through the shell game that passes for campaign finance in this country.
Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that the overwhelming majority of the contributions to leadership PACs come from other PACs. Contributions for this cycle (as of Jun 30) total $33,006,846, with $32,695,096 coming from other PACs
Leadership PACS are subject to federal contribution limits and reporting requirements but campaign finance laws don’t apply to how the funds are spent, resulting wide-spread abuse according to watchdogs Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the Campaign Legal Center (CLC)
CLC Senior Counsel Paul Ryan notes that leadership PACs were created in the 1970s, ostensibly for politicians to support those of similar ideologies but have “evolved into slush funds to raise and spend money on anything they want except their own campaign.”
However, the public may be unaware that their representative or senator even has such a committee.
The FEC requires that affiliated committees, such as joint fundraising committees, be disclosed in the filings of a candidate’s principle campaign committee. But there is no such requirement for non-connected committees and finding out who has a leadership PAC can be difficult, allowing politicians to operate these committees largely outside of public scrutiny.
The lack of disclosure makes it easy for members of Congress to quietly create a leadership PAC and solicit funds from special interests without their constituents ever knowing about it, which is exactly what Rep Nolan did last March.