The Democratic Party’s Tortured Relationship With Corporate PAC Money

When progressive Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) was briefly entertaining a run for the White House in early 2019, he promised that if he took the plunge, his campaign would reject corporate PAC money.

But Brown—who since declining to seek the presidency has accepted more than $1 million in corporate PAC donations—will not make that same promise as he gears up for what’s sure to be a contentious re-election fight in 2024.

“Anyone who knows Sherrod knows he’s one of the nation’s strongest leaders in taking on big corporations on behalf of Ohio workers—that’s one of the reasons Ohioans continue to elect him to the U.S. Senate and why he will win this race in 2024,” Brown campaign manager Rachel Petri said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “We are proud of the grassroots coalition he’s built and have no doubt it will show up to support him again as we gear up for next year.”

Petri did not reply when asked why Brown, who accepted more than $7 million in corporate PAC money before 2019, believed standards were different when it came to his Senate candidacy. (Petri most recently managed Sen. Raphael Warnock’s victorious 2022 campaign in Georgia, which set fundraising records despite rejecting corporate PAC money.)

Politics provides the likely explanation.

Unlike with the crowded 2020 presidential field, where corporate PAC support functioned as a test of progressive street cred, Brown—a longtime incumbent who prides himself as a champion of unions and the working class, and the only Ohio Democrat elected to statewide office since 2011—won’t likely face much of a primary challenge from the left this time around.

But while Brown may reason that his corporate support—or the contradictions that surround it—isn’t high on the list of issues for Ohio voters, that luxury doesn’t apply across the board.

Republicans, meanwhile, aren’t sweating this question. Of the more than 70 politicians who ran for Congress last year with a “no corporate PAC money” pledge, all but a few were Democrats. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Josh Hawley (R-MO), and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) have all sworn off corporate PAC donations. But for Senators Cruz and Hawley, that’s because corporate PACs have sworn them off, after their support for overturning the 2020 election.

At the end of the day, the “no corporate PAC money” pledge is almost exclusively a litmus test for populist liberals. A total of 155 Democrats took the vow in 2020, and it will surely be a trial on the 2024 campaign trail as well, even as corporations flee politics following the MAGA revolt on Jan. 6.

Take Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), who recently announced her bid to replace 89-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Last month, Porter told NPR that rejecting corporate PACs is one way to “get Washington working.”

“If Democrats and Republicans were refusing corporate PAC money like I have, who were refusing lobby—federal lobbyist checks like I have, then I think you would see more ability to have conversation about the issues,” Porter said, adding that voters “don’t want you to be bought and paid for.”

Porter has already attempted to use the issue to contrast herself with rival Rep. Adam Schiff, who has said he won’t take corporate funds after accepting tens of thousands of dollars over his career. “Our senator should work for Californians, not corporations,” Porter said in a statement following Schiff’s candidacy announcement last month. “I’m proud to be the only candidate who has never taken a dime of corporate PAC money.”

But the pledge is also widely seen as cosmetic. First, corporate PACs don’t account for a lot of political spending. While some companies can pull in billions of dollars a year, federal election law evens the playing field a bit, limiting their PAC gifts to $5,000 per candidate per election. Many of those PACs pull a large portion of their funds—sometimes the majority of it—from executives.

The pledge also comes with loopholes wide enough to accommodate millions of dollars. And given the myriad paths political cash can take to a candidate—e.g., via trade groups, individual executives, or contributions from other candidates, leadership PACs, and other groups that do accept corporate money—the pledge can open even the most well-meaning candidates to allegations of hypocrisy.

Of course, there are also more direct accusations. While Brown’s case in particular drew criticism in 2019, his 2024 decision would appear to sidestep that issue.

Brown has burnished a reputation as an anti-corporate crusader, but his campaign and leadership PAC have collected more than $8 million from corporate PACs during his three decades in federal office, including from lobbying groups, according to federal data. His top industries include lobbyists, health care, insurance, and the financial sector, with the Center of Responsive Politics labeling him an “industry favorite” for his third-place ranking among recipients of credit union money.

Brown received more than $100,000 from corporate groups in the last quarter of 2022 alone, FEC filings show, with donors including New York Life, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Squire Patton Boggs, Visa, Microsoft, and defense contractors Northrup Grumman and Booz Allen Hamilton.

Asked about that record in 2019, Brown told Politico, “My head is not turned by that. And I can prove it.”

“It’s personal to me what Wall Street overreach and Wall Street greed can do,” he said, pointing to the foreclosure crisis in his home state of Ohio. “It’s not personal that I aim at their executives or aim at them as a company as much as it is, how do we make good things happen? And we’ve had some success doing that.”

Brown has criticized some of his corporate benefactors, including General Motors, Amazon, and Wells Fargo—which could evince hypocrisy or integrity, depending how you slice it.

While some incumbents haven’t officially announced their re-election intentions yet, The Daily Beast reached out to a number of 2024 Democratic senatorial contenders for this report, including many who have previously sworn off corporate donations. Only Sheldon Whitehouse and Kirsten Gillbrand replied, both confirming they will uphold their pledge for 2024.

Like Brown, Gillibrand swore off corporate cash when she joined the presidential primary field in 2019. But unlike Brown, Gillibrand appears to have stemmed the flow to her Senate committee and leadership PAC, refunding the single offending check—a $2,000 gift from Clorox’s PAC in 2020.

A handful of liberals—Chris Murphy, Maria Cantwell, and Bernie Sanders—have all kept their noses clean, Roll Call reported last year, as has outspoken progressive Elizabeth Warren—at least since taking the pledge in 2018 ahead of her own 2020 run.

New Jersey’s Bob Menendez, who faces the prospect of campaigning while under criminal investigation, has not taken the pledge. He’s already got a primary challenger on the left, and his campaign accounts have been stuffed with corporate cash. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico is playing it close to the vest, but his Lobo PAC has been cited as a “significant conduit” for corporate money to other candidates. Same with Montana’s Jon Tester, who hasn’t announced his plans, either.

Nevada’s Jacky Rosen, who heads into re-election with a staggering $4.4 million, has also been dinged as a corporate recipient and conduit to pledge-takers. As have Bob Casey and Tim Kaine, another corporate favorite. And the jury is still out on Tammy Baldwin, whose 2018 bid saw an endorsement from campaign finance reform advocates End Citizens United, despite not taking the pledge.

While Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema does not shy from courting corporate donors, she has bowed out of the 2024 Democratic primary and will apply her fat stack of campaign cash as an independent in what will likely be a three-way general election fight. But her most prominent Democratic opponent, Rep. Ruben Gallego, has enjoyed hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate PAC support, including from defense contractors.

In 2019, Gallego called out then-Democratic candidate Mark Kelly—at the time a potential primary rival—for violating the spirit of his “no corporate PAC money” pledge by taking in thousands in speaking fees at corporate events.

And then there’s Joe Manchin. Like Sinema, Manchin has in recent years tested the patience of his liberal colleagues—and he’s also a top corporate target. In fact, over the last three months of 2022, Manchin saw far more financial support from companies than he did from his West Virginia constituents, who contributed a total $1,130.

In that same period, corporate PACs gave Manchin $89,300.

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