Pete Buttigieg launched a political action committee in June 2017 to relatively little fanfare. The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, at the time was still a minor political figure. He had made an unsuccessful run for Democratic National Committee chairman and been the subject of some positive press from national columnists, but he was little-known nationally.
His PAC, dubbed “Hitting Home,” would “mobilize resources to elect Democrats, at every level and in communities both red and blue, who will put the lived experiences of Americans front and center,” Buttigieg wrote.
“We will support candidates who focus on showing voters what we are for — not just what we are against — and understand how to do so in terms of our everyday lives,” he continued.
Two years later, as his 2020 presidential campaign began to take off, Buttigieg shut down the group. And it hadn’t come close to living up to his billing of its aims.
The PAC had done relatively little to help Democrats during the 2018 midterm elections, when the party waged its hard-fought battle to win control of the U.S. House. But it had paid significant sums to a host of Democratic consultants and staffers to promote Buttigieg’s image. Of the slightly more than $400,000 Buttigieg raised for the PAC, it donated just $37,000 to other Democratic candidates.
At the same time, the PAC paid nearly $70,000 to Lis Smith, who served as Buttigieg’s spokesperson and became the communications director for his presidential bid. Another $27,500 went to Michael Schmuhl, who served as the PAC’s treasurer and is now Buttigieg’s campaign manager. The PAC’s finance director received $34,500. A top Democratic media consulting firm was paid $28,500.
The PAC helped Buttigieg catapult from a well-credentialed mayor of a 101,000-population college town to a leading contender for the nation’s highest office. It served as a springboard that had more to do with personal promotion than it did with aiding other Democrats.
Buttigieg has now entered the top tier of Democrats seeking the presidential nomination: Polls show him doing well in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, though his weakness with voters of color means he trails the leading trio of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden in most national surveys.
In a statement, Buttigieg’s campaign attributed the PAC’s low rate of support for other Democrats to a failure to raise money. Some of the PAC’s administrative costs were similar to those of other presidential contenders: Buttigieg spent about $77,000 on accountants, compliance and legal fees involved with setting up this group, while Biden’s PAC spent about $67,000 and Harris’s group spent nearly $90,000.
The committee was created “before Pete was a national figure and the PAC brought in less money than envisioned,” Buttigieg spokesman Sean Savett said. “As a result, a higher percentage of the spending went to administrative and legal costs. As a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Pete remains committed to building the party bench and has put forward a platform that can keep the House, take back the Senate, and elect Democrats up and down the ballot when he’s elected next year.”
During the time the PAC was in operation, Buttigieg received glowing coverage aplenty in the national press: His wedding was written up by The New York Times, Rolling Stone profiled him and he sat for lengthy interviews with PBS and MTV.
Buttigieg seeded the PAC with money left over from his unsuccessful bid for the DNC chairmanship. Throughout the PAC’s existence, it was able to take in unlimited donations, including a $50,000 contribution from Christel Dehaan, a prominent Republican-turned-Democratic donor in Indiana and major backer of charter schools. (Buttigieg has called for more oversight of for-profit charter schools and suggested a pause in the “expansion” of charter schools.) More than a third of its funds came from either corporate donations or individual gifts above the standard federal limit.
The PAC donated between $500 and $2,000 to 23 Democrats running for federal offices, 14 of whom won their elections. Many of them, like Buttigieg, were either openly gay (now-Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids) or military veterans (Kentucky’s Amy McGrath, New York Rep. Max Rose) or both (Texas’ Gina Ortiz Jones.) Only two were incumbents: Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly (who lost) and Iowa Rep. David Loebsack (who won).
Several of the other Democratic White House candidates ― who had, in virtually all cases, higher political profiles and decades to develop national fundraising bases ― donated far more. Warren, for instance, donated $10,000 to all 50 state Democratic parties, plus additional donations to individual candidates. California Sen. Kamala Harris’ PAC donated over $700,000. And Biden’s PAC forked over more than $600,000 to other Democrats.