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Lee’s leadership PAC also vets and endorses candidates who share Lee’s tea party philosophy of limited government. Lee sought Federal Election Commission permission to set up an unrestricted super PAC in December, but commissioners unanimously turned him down.
Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), who gained a national grass-roots following during his unsuccessful GOP presidential primary bid, is also using his leadership PAC, Liberty PAC, to promote a half-dozen Senate and close to two dozen House GOP candidates.
“We absolutely follow Sen. DeMint’s model,” said Lee’s communications director, Michael Phillips, who said the PAC has a long-term fundraising target of $5 million to $10 million and hopes to coordinate in the future with like-minded PACs such as the Senate Conservatives Fund and Liberty PAC.
Democrats have leveraged their fundraising prowess in other ways. The Searchlight Leadership Fund, run by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), has directly donated $5,000 and $10,000 checks to dozens of Democrats, but it also gave $255,000 to Majority PAC, the leading super PAC backing Democratic Senate candidates.
Reid’s leadership PAC donated the maximum $10,000 to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). But Majority PAC has made close to $870,000 in campaign expenditures on McCaskill’s behalf.
Similarly, the leadership PAC run by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), PAC for a Change, also has given $205,000 to the Majority PAC.
“They’re leveraging their special reputation and cachet with donors to spread the wealth in very targeted ways,” Krumholz said. The CRP estimates that close to 400 Member-run leadership PACs have given out more than $32 million this election cycle.
As they’ve gained leverage, some leadership PACs have drawn controversy.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) ruffled GOP feathers earlier this year when his leadership PAC, Every Republican is Crucial PAC, gave $25,000 to a super PAC known as the Campaign for Primary Accountability, which was busy trying to oust some of his colleagues.
The Missouri Democratic Party filed complaints with the FEC and the House Ethics Committee last month after DeMint endorsed GOP Rep. Todd Akin in the Missouri Senate race. Democrats said Akin had improperly negotiated and coordinated with the super PAC.
Hoskins said the super PAC operates independently from campaigns and endorsed Akin only after surveying its members. He said DeMint does no fundraising for the super PAC, which has taken pains to sever ties with the Senator.
Still, watchdogs who fought hard to improve leadership PAC disclosure with ethics reforms enacted in 2007 bemoan the groups’ growing clout.
“We finally got registration and disclosure of them in 2007, and I thought that was a big step forward,” said Government Affairs lobbyist Craig Holman of Public Citizen. “And now the leadership PACs are doing exactly what they were not supposed to be doing, and that is electioneering.”