One of the truisms of the Congressional campaigns is that incumbents PAC a punch.
Political Action Committee donations overwhelmingly flow to federal candidates already in office, said Pete Quist of the National Institute of Money in Politics. The latest round of federal campaign finance reports bear that out.
“They will give to incumbents and tend not to care very much about what party affiliation is attached to the candidate’s name,” Quist said.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines led all Montana candidates in fundraising last quarter with $1.2 million in contributions and $371,497 from 166 PACs and other committees. Those PACs represented interests from Anadarko Petroleum to Wal-Mart. Daines ranked 13th among Senate recipients of political action committee donations up for election in 2020, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That ranking is based on federal election reports for the six-year cycle leading up to the November 2020 election. The donations, through Sept. 21, put Daines' PAC donations at $1.6 million, according to CRP.
Daines' campaign has $4 million on hand. No challenger has yet to crack $100,000.
PACs represent businesses, unions or people of the same beliefs, and those organizations can give a candidate up to $5,000 for a primary election, while also giving up to $5,000 for the general election. They’re an easy way for individuals already donating to campaigns to donate even more.
Those donation limits make PAC money useful for congressional candidates, but less useful at the state level where donation caps are much lower. Quist said Montana sees very little PAC influence in its state government races because the donation limits curb the impact of PAC money.
PACs tend not to be risk takers; they choose incumbents. And incumbents, Quist said, win at least 90% of the time, if not more, during most election years.
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To Quist’s point about PACs not favoring one party or another, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester ranked seventh in PAC donations during the 2018 election cycle. When the 2018 election ended, Tester had $3.7 million from PACs, according to CRP. There is crossover in the PACs that donate to both Montana senators.
Early PAC money girds Daines from an unexpectedly formidable opponent, or from some unexpected negative response to President Donald Trump, the Republican at the top of the 2020 ticket. It’s always better to have campaign money early, said Jeremy Johnson, political scientist at Carroll College. PACs have helped Daines build a more than $5 million war chest.
“Money isn’t everything, but it helps,” Johnson said. “One of those things to look at down the road is impeachment. Also look at the Affordable Care Act case in the Supreme Court and how voters react. That could change things. You want to raise as much money as you can early, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
To put those Daines PAC donations into perspective, Democrats Wilmot Collins and John Mues, who are both vying for their party nomination to challenge Daines, reported no PAC money. Mues reported $82,989, including an $18,400 self-loan. Collins reported raising $84,450 for the quarter. That lack of the PAC interest in upstart candidates makes it easy for challengers to make no-PAC pledges while calling on incumbents to do the same.
Cora Neumann, a latecomer to the Democratic primary, didn’t campaign in the third quarter and had nothing to report.
In the race for Montana’s only U.S. House seat, there’s no incumbent and the PAC money so far doesn’t compare well to the Daines haul. U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte is running for the Republican nomination for governor. Two candidates, both with recent federal campaign experience, have PAC money on their books. Republican State Auditor Matt Rosendale, who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Tester in 2018, collected $25,589 from PACs last quarter. Democrat Kathleen Williams, who unsuccessfully challenged Gianforte last year, reported $11,500 in PAC money. No other candidate reported PAC money for the quarter, though Democrat Tom Winter reported receiving $5,000 earlier in the campaign season.
There may be some PAC activity benefiting challengers later in the campaign, but it’s unlikely that the challengers will surpass Daines in PAC money. The money spent on incumbent campaigns is a pretty safe bet, Quist said. When a candidate is already in office, donations can pay off before an election in the form of access.