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Traditional PACs Not Hurting for Cash

Super PACs may be sexy, but they are not about to put their tamer predecessors out of business.

Conventional political action committees are still the go-to campaign contribution vehicle for corporations and trade associations, and if 2011 year-end filings are any indicator, they are not starving for donations because of the proliferation of alternative, unregulated giving options.

As ideologically driven organizations such as the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the AFL-CIO have turned to super PACs — the new independent-expenditure-only committees that can raise unlimited sums — the business community remains skittish, preferring the reliability of separate, segregated campaign funds instead.

“It is a well-developed, mature process that is disclosed, accepted and is part of the hard-money system,” said Geoff Ziebart, executive director of the National Association of Business PACS. “Publicly traded corporations want to stay in the space where they have operated for years, where they are comfortable and focused on a pro-business agenda in Congress.”

And, for the most part, the two entities do not attract the same kind of donors, lobbyists and PAC directors told Roll Call.

“There is a smaller amount of people who are inclined to support super PACs — the millionaires, the billionaires who really want to move the needle farther and faster on a national level,” Ziebart said.

About two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that outside players may raise unrestricted corporate and union money as long as they operate independently from candidates and parties.

Since then, political entrepreneurs — 300 as of Tuesday, according to FEC records — have rushed to set up super PACs with varying levels of success, reshaping the landscape of political giving and the role wealthy individuals and corporate treasuries can play in federal elections.

While neither entity can coordinate its independent expenditures with campaigns, conventional PACs can contribute directly to candidates and can coordinate ground activities. Super PAC donors relinquish control over how their money is spent.

Companies and the associations representing them want their fingerprints squarely on contributions to lawmakers they support. Furthermore, the voluntary contribution process also helps build a sense of industry unity, lobbyists and PAC directors told Roll Call.

“It’s more about the psychological value of delivering a check on behalf of individuals as opposed to corporations,” said David French, the chief lobbyist for the National Retail Federation. “What I’m trying to do as a lobbyist is not just invest a few dollars in a campaign. I’m trying to invest people in a goal and I’m trying to mobilize people in a process. ... It’s not just about money, it’s about votes.”

But French said that NRF, which represents some of the country’s largest retailers, would not rule out forming a super PAC.

“If a Las Vegas billionaire can swoop in and invest $5 million a pop, it’s a lot harder to make the case [for a conventional PAC],” he said.

Partisans and ideologically driven donors, on the other hand, don’t mind turning that control over to a larger group, said David Keating, executive director of the conservative Club for Growth.

“They know if they give it to the [independent expenditure] account we are just going to spend that money in the areas where it’s going to do the most work,” he said. “They don’t have to do any work to choose a candidate.”

The small-government group launched its super PAC in August 2010, spending nearly $5 million on independent expenditures in the three months leading up to the midterm elections. The organization maintains a traditional PAC to bundle campaign contributions, but last year that entity raised only $540,000, about 25 percent of what its super PAC pulled in.

PACs, established in the 1970s in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, have waged their own public relations battles over the years. The committees were initially frowned upon but are now largely accepted as one way businesses engage Washington, D.C. But there is a growing skepticism among business leaders that the proliferation of super PACs is putting that relationship at risk.

“As the super PAC movement continues to grow, all of us will be watching to see how it could impact participation in the American political system,” said Mike Johnson, executive director of the National Beer Wholesalers Association.

In 2011, the association’s PAC contributed $1.4 million to federal candidates, more than any other political action committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Johnson said the presence of super PACS has not altered his fundraising or contribution strategy, but by this time last cycle, the association had contributed $1.7 million.

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