Big sums from lawmakers sitting pretty to those in need -- but victory not a given

Sen.-elect Todd Young (R-Ind.) received more than any other candidate from lawmakers' campaign committees and leadership PACs along with party committees. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)


With control of the Senate and possibly the House at stake -- or so it seemed until close to Election Day -- the word went out from the Democratic and Republican parties to lawmakers: If you're not running this time, or if you're sitting on a pile of cash, share the love. Priority races were flagged, and those who could were expected to ante up.

Still, while being on the receiving end of those funds was far better than the alternative, it didn't guarantee victory. In fact, less than 75 percent of the 15 House and Senate candidates who netted the most money from fellow candidates and party committees in 2016 won their races. In Nevada, GOP Rep. Joe Heck, for instance, who received almost $660,000, lost to incoming Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D), who claimed just over $437,000, in their battle over an open seat.

But having that money certainly could be a plus. On his path to victory over former Indiana Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, incoming Sen. Todd Young (R) amassed more than $1 million in contributions from lawmakers, their leadership PACs and Republican party committees. In doing so, he topped the list of House and Senate candidates who received the most through candidate-to-candidate and party giving.

Top 2016 recipients of candidate-to-candidate and party giving

*Patrick Murphy and Marco Rubio competed for the same Senate seat.

The list's party breakdown is noteworthy: 14 of the 15 candidates on it are Republicans, and no Democrat cracked the top 10. Florida's Rep. Patrick Murphy, at No. 11 with $504,083, was the Democratic candidate who received the most through the aforementioned channels. He nonetheless lost to incumbent Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who ranked 15th with $488,460 raised.

Part of the reason for the discrepancy between Republicans and Democrats could lie at the top of the ticket. Democratic presidential nominee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received a total of $806,591 from other candidates, while President-elect Donald Trump took in just $104,847. By opting not to back Trump, Republican candidates may have been able to commit larger sums to House and Senate races.

Comfortable incumbents and others facing lesser threats often use their candidate committees and leadership PACs to shift money to challengers and incumbents in more competitive races. And party committee spending can "establish giving priorities," said Brett Kappel, a government affairs and public policy lawyer at Akerman LLP. But Kappel also noted that whether or not members of Congress give according to party priorities is sometimes the result of personal relationships. A lawmaker might give to a friend, regardless of the party's agenda, even if that candidate isn't in real danger of losing.

Comparing donations from candidate campaign committees and leadership PACs to other candidates over time shows the dominance of leadership PACs, which can give $5,000 to any candidate per election -- so $10,000 for a primary plus a general election. Donations from campaign committees are capped at $2,000 per calendar year.

Leadership PACs are appealing for another reason, as well: They can accept larger amounts from donors, and the sponsoring lawmaker can use the funds however he or she wants -- including taking friends out to dinner or renting a plane to fly the family over the Grand Canyon. The personal use restrictions that apply to campaign funds don't apply here. According to Meredith McGehee at Issue One, this has caused leadership PACs to operate, essentially, "like political slush fund[s] funded by special interests." The FEC has asked Congress to pass a personal use ban for leadership PACs since at least 2009.

Nearly $46.9 million was contributed by 529 leadership PACs in the 2016 cycle -- more than any other year except 2014. Giving from candidate committees was more anemic than it has been for several cycles, at just under $9.5 million. Still, in both cases, giving is usually more robust during midterm election cycles, when all the focus is on Congress.

And there will always be friends in need.

Researcher Alex Baumgart contributed to this report.