Politics, government and public life for Southern California

The trickle-down effect of California campaign funding

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One steady source of income to Congressional campaigns in this election has been from current members. And they have lots of different ways to give.

Nancy Pelosi rose through the ranks to become the Democrats’ Congressional leader in part because of her fundraising prowess. In this election cycle, for example, she raised more than $2 million for her own campaign.

Sheila Krumholz, who heads the Center for Responsive Politics, says because Pelosi’s re-election is a lock, she can open up her purse strings: "She can then take that money to tithe to the party."

Pelosi can do this by contributing to the party's campaign arm for House members, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Krumholz says Pelosi will raise funds, "both from her campaign and from her leadership PAC. She will then support other colleagues, junior colleagues, struggling candidates for office."

This election, Pelosi gave $4 thousand from her campaign fund — split evenly between the primary and the general election — to several California Democrats in tough House races. The recipients included Alan Lowenthal in Long Beach, Raul Ruiz in Palm Springs, and Mark Takano in Riverside.

Melanie Sloan, who heads Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, says House and Senate leaders are "pretty clear that if you want leadership positions, you are expected to both raise money and give it away and campaign for people." She says it's tough to get a chairmanship without raising the cash. "That is clearly an expected part of your job."

Pelosi’s political action committee, PAC to the Future, kicked in another $11 thousand to Lowenthal. But the candidate Pelosi’s PAC gave the most money to — $13 thousand — is Loretta Sanchez. The Orange County incumbent, who is a virtual shoo-in for re-election, turned around and wrote a check to Lowenthal — and to more than half a dozen other California Democrats running for Congress.

This may all seem like a shell game, but Krumholz says it’s perfectly legal. She says candidates can give up to $2 thousand in a normal cycle, "directly from their campaign to another federal candidate."

Sanchez’s chief of staff says the Congresswoman is "focused on returning the majority  in Congress to the Democratic Party, and is therefore doing all she can to support Democratic candidates throughout California and the United States."

It's not just members in secure seats who are sharing their campaign contributions, either. Mary Bono Mack, locked in a tough re-election contest with Raul Ruiz in the Coachella Valley, gave $2 thousand to John Tavaglione, who's running for an open Congressional seat in Riverside.

Krumholz, of the Center for Responsive Politics, says it's unsual "for a struggling candidate, a candidate in a close race, to give up that hard-earned cash."

A campaign spokesman says Bono Mack and Tavaglione, a Riverside County Supervisor, are "very old friends" and she'd be "delighted at the opportunity to have him in Congress."

Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, says the giving doesn't stop at individual contributions: "The majority of House member have these so-called leadership PACs."

Bakersfield Republican Kevin McCarthy is the House Majority Whip. His rise to leadership was helped by working with Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan to create the Young Guns network, which helped elect 62 GOP candidates to the House in 2010.

McCarthy has his own political action committee as well — the MC PAC. It gave $10 thousand to Long Beach candidate Gary DeLong and an additional $75 thousand to several other Congressional candidates including Bono Mack, who has her own PAC too.

Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, describes the phenomenon as a candidate’s "coat," with lots of pockets to collect money: "Usually this is some of the most interested money in the sense of, it’s coming in larger amounts, often from outside the district, and it knows exactly what the system is doing."

McGehee says the message that comes with the contribution is, “We’re gonna buy access and influence with this money, we’re going to make you a powerful political player, and we know that you have all these different pockets to reach into, so we’re going to make sure that each of them has some money in them."

McGehee says there’s a particular danger with one pocket in particular — the political action committee, because of the unlimited amount of money they can amass for the politicos who run them. 

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