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PACs Back Incumbents; Just Ask Rep. Scott Peters

Above: Incumbent Congressman Scott Peters speaks at the Athens Market Taverna in San Diego on election night, June 3, 2014.

Aired 8/28/14 on KPBS News.

Two years ago, when Democrat Scott Peters successfully challenged Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray in the 52nd Congressional District, most of the PAC money went to Bilbray. This year, Peters is getting money from 100 PACs that gave to his opponent in 2012.

Why PAC Money Matters

The race in the 52nd Congressional District is one of the closest in the nation, and special interests have taken note, pouring more than $1.2 million into the race.

Key points

• One hundred PACs that contributed to then-Rep. Brian Bilbray’s 2012 campaign against Scott Peters now support the Democrat.

• Peters is more reliant on PAC contributions than Republican Carl DeMaio — accounting for 40 percent of his fundraising compared with DeMaio’s 12 percent.

• Most of the biggest-spending PACs that have switched represent defense companies. Peters is a member of the House’s Armed Services Committee.

• The PACs that have stuck by the GOP candidate this year are overwhelmingly sponsored by partisan and ideological interests.

52nd Congressional District

The district runs north from Coronado to La Jolla, and then east to include Carmel Valley, Scripps Ranch, Poway and Rancho Bernardo.

General Atomics went all in for Rep. Brian Bilbray in the 2012 election for California’s 52nd Congressional District.

The PAC for the San Diego-based defense contractor gave early and often to the Carlsbad Republican, hitting the $10,000 per-election-cycle limit in February 2012, fully nine months before the election.

It’s not a surprise. General Atomics was the top donor of Bilbray’s career. Its PAC and employees contributed at least $102,150 to the 10-term congressman ($85,000 of which came through its PAC), according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research organization that tracks money in politics.

What a difference one election cycle can make.

Since Peters beat Bilbray in the November election, the Predator drone maker has directed $10,000 to his re-election campaign.

General Atomics — which declined to comment for this story — is in good company. In all, 100 PACs — fundraising vehicles that represent special interests like businesses or labor unions — that contributed to Bilbray in 2012 are donating to Peters this time around, according to an inewsource analysis of Federal Election Commission data.

“Incumbents have a magnetic pull on PACs,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Krumholz says the power of incumbency — the ability to make policy — is driving this mass PAC defection from one party to the other.

“An incumbent’s ability to act in favor of that PAC’s sponsor — the corporation or union or trade association — is really all they’re looking for,” Krumholz said. “That’s the name of the game.”

PACs also like winners. Ninety percent of the time, that’s going to be the incumbent. In 2012, that meant Bilbray. This time, it means Peters.

“They want to give to the person who they think is most likely to be there the day after the election,” Krumholz said.

The PACs that switched from Bilbray in 2012 to Peters in 2014 have shelled out at least $364,000 to the Democratic incumbent’s campaign. That’s more than 37 percent of all PAC money Peters has raised so far.

And it’s not just that these PACs are showering Peters with money. They’re turning a cold shoulder to the current Republican in the race — Carl DeMaio.

Only 46 political action committees that backed Bilbray have thrown their lot in with DeMaio. They’ve given the former San Diego councilman at least $177,250, less than half the amount Peters has received from former Bilbray PACs.

PACs contributing to both Bilbray and Peters

When running against Bilbray two years ago, Peters criticized the Republican for his significant PAC contributions, telling East County Magazine, “I’ve gotten most of my funding from San Diego. … He’s got quite a bit more PAC money.”

At the time, Bilbray had raised about 53 percent of his funds through PACs; Peters, 12 percent.

This time, the tables are turned.

The Democrat has raised some $974,000 from political action committees through June 30, about 40 percent of his total $2.4 million raised, excluding self-financing and loans.

DeMaio has raised $272,000 from PACs through June 30, about 12 percent of his total $2.2 million raised, excluding self-financing and loans.

Dave McCulloch, a spokesman for DeMaio’s campaign, seized on the disparity, saying in an email, “After raking in more than $1 million in PAC money, it is clear that Scott Peters is the candidate of big business and special interests.”

While PAC money makes up a far larger proportion of Peters’ contributions than it does his competitor’s, most of Peters’ contributions have come from individuals. And his fundraising base is more diverse than that of his fellow House incumbents.

Nearly three-quarters of House members have received a larger proportion of their funds from PACs than has Peters, according to an analysis of data provided to inewsource by the Center for Responsive Politics. (The analysis included House members not running for re-election.)

Alex Roth, communications director for Peters’ campaign, declined to comment on the contributions. Instead, he pointed to outside spending groups that have launched television ads against Peters. In an email, he said such groups (including those that do not disclose their donors) “have already spent $1 million to support Carl DeMaio with a stream of attack ads against Scott Peters.”

He went on to write that while Peters supports campaign finance reform, “Scott must be able to compete against these secret special-interest super PACs.”

Defense companies leading party-switchers

The political action committees that switched their support from Bilbray to Peters primarily represent business interests, either individual companies or trade associations.

The most generous party-switchers represent defense companies.

Northrop Grumman backed Bilbray to the tune of $9,500 in 2012. The B-2 stealth bomber maker turned around and began donating to Peters in March of last year, hitting the $10,000 cap last September, more than a year before this November’s election.

Cruise missile maker Raytheon is another big-time party switcher. The company’s PAC made five $1,000 contributions to Bilbray between December of 2011 and April of 2012. Beginning in May of last year, the PAC began cutting checks to Peters, maxing out at $10,000 with a $1,500 check this past June.

Aerospace, defense and consumer electronics giant Honeywell International Inc. donated $4,000 to Bilbray in 2012. The company’s PAC boosted its giving this time around, handing Peters’ campaign nine checks totaling $10,000.

A spokesman for Honeywell declined to make anyone from the company available to discuss its PAC’s contributions, saying in an email that “Honeywell’s political action committee supports those who support the policies that are most important to our business.”

Peters is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, and Krumholz with the Center for Responsive Politics said it makes sense that defense companies are among his big donors.

Defense companies, whose revenues depend on a steady stream of Defense Department contracts, are the most reliable donors to incumbents. That’s especially true of incumbents who sit on committees with jurisdiction over their interests.

“These PACs know which side their bread is buttered on and will be loyal to those that will benefit them the most,” Krumholz said.

Local companies switch support

Several PACs representing local companies have jumped from the Republican to Democratic sides of the aisle this time around.

Leading the list is the PAC of telecommunications giant Qualcomm.

QPAC made two contributions totaling $3,500 to Bilbray in 2012. This election cycle, the PAC upped its giving, making four contributions to Peters’ campaign and hitting the $10,000 limit this May.

In an email, Alice Tornquist, vice president of government affairs for Qualcomm, explained their support by praising Peters as “a strong advocate on a number of issues that are important to our company, such as federal funding for basic research, high-skilled immigration reform, and preserving the patent system.”

The PAC of Sempra Energy, owner of San Diego Gas & Electric, also was a big backer of Bilbray in 2012, and this election cycle the energy giant’s PAC is on course to again max out contributions to the incumbent. Its given $7,500 to Peters through June 30, with its last contribution in March.

A spokeswoman for Sempra declined to make anyone available to discuss its contributions but sent an email saying, “It is generally our practice to build good working relationships and support members of Congress who represent the regions where we operate.”

Bridgepoint Education, a for-profit educational institution, contributed $10,000 through its PAC to Bilbray’s 2012 campaign before ponying up $1,000 to Peters last spring.

A spokeswoman for Bridgepoint declined an interview request but said in an email, in part, that its PAC considers “voting record; position on key committees; likelihood of winning their election; presence of employees, students and/or physical assets in a district” when considering which candidates to support.

For PAC funds, DeMaio relies on GOP partisans

Carl DeMaio attends an election night party for Kevin Faulconer, Feb. 11, 2014.

Most of the 46 political action committees that backed Bilbray in 2012 and that are supporting DeMaio now are Republicans’ campaign committees or GOP leadership PACs. Leadership PACs are committees politicians form to raise money they then donate to other party candidates.

“Campaign and leadership PAC support is critical for challengers in tight races especially, and especially these days,” Krumholz said. “More than it has in decades past, it adds up to big, big bucks.”

When asked in writing whether major contributions from senior GOP politicians’ PACs conflicted with DeMaio’s oft-stated goal of reforming Washington, campaign spokesman McCulloch responded that such a question represented “an absurd and skewed view of the data.”

McCulloch went on to write that most of DeMaio’s financial support comes from individual donors and that “Carl has articulated a positive and inclusive vision of reforming government — and invites support for that agenda from a broad range of individuals.”

About 81 percent of DeMaio’s contributions have come from individuals.

PACs contributing to both Bilbray and DeMaio

Only 18 of the 46 PACs that stuck with the GOP candidate for both elections are non-ideological. Most of the 18 are in either the construction, energy or financial services industries, and all have directed at least two-thirds of their contributions to Republican candidates this cycle, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Five PACs have contributed the maximum $10,000 to DeMaio through June 30. They are:

• The Freedom Project: a leadership PAC sponsored by House Speaker John Boehner.

• Every Republican Is Crucial PAC (ERICPAC): a leadership PAC sponsored by former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

• Majority Committee PAC: a leadership PAC sponsored by current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

• New Majority California Federal PAC: a PAC affiliated with an organization that supports mostly Republican candidates in California.

• Associated Builders and Contractors Political Action Committee (ABC PAC): a builders association PAC that has donated exclusively to Republicans in the 2013-2014 election cycle.

Tom Ross, political director of New Majority California, said his organization has its own criteria for supporting candidates.

“We look and ask, ‘OK. Where can our contribution make a difference in the race?’ And that’s probably a little bit different than [business PACs] which are all looking at it and saying, ‘Hey, let’s follow winners,’ right? That’s a completely different way of looking at races,” Ross said.

New Majority made its first $5,000 contribution to DeMaio barely two weeks after the candidate formed his fundraising committee.

“We were in with DeMaio really early. Once he said he was going to run there, we were excited about it,” Ross said. “We thought that was a chance to pick up the seat.”

Ross said the organization will likely back challengers in five of the seven California-based U.S. House races where it’ll spend money.

Of course, if sticking with the incumbent is considered the safe bet, one political action committee seems to have found one that’s even safer.

Deloitte Political Action Committee, the PAC representing the interests of financial consulting powerhouse Deloitte, contributed $1,000 to Peters in June 2013 and $5,000 to DeMaio in March 2014.

Krumholz described it as “fairly unusual” for a PAC to contribute to both candidates in the same race and offered two possibilities.

Either the PAC is hedging its bets, or its had a change of heart.

A spokeswoman for Deloitte declined to say whether the company’s PAC had soured on Peters, writing in an email that “we are a non-partisan PAC and strive to give to candidates of both parties who understand and advocate for policies that promote economic growth and job creation.”

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