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Members’ PACs Test Unregulated Spending

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Sen. Jim DeMint launched a powerful leadership PAC in 2008. Since then, the group has morphed into a super PAC and has cut ties with the South Carolina lawmaker.

In this cycle’s costliest and most competitive House and Senate races, Members of Congress are deploying a little-noticed but influential weapon: their personal political action committees, typically known as leadership PACs.

Long a staple of Member-to-Member campaign giving, leadership PACs are now so ubiquitous that more than three-quarters of all lawmakers in Congress have them, and their influence is growing. Once criticized as a means of skirting campaign contribution limits, leadership PACs are now testing the more controversial waters of unrestricted money.

Some Member-run PACs have started endorsing candidates or bundling money for them, operating as quasi-political-party committees. Others have funneled large sums to unrestricted super PACs. One leadership PAC, previously operated by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), even morphed into a super PAC, signaling what some argue is an inevitable trend.

“Soon, Members of Congress, I think, will all have their own super PAC,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Though some top Congressional leaders are cozy with, and have raised money for, super PACs, most have stuck with the more familiar vehicle of the leadership PAC to help colleagues and candidates.

But the face of leadership PACs, which unlike unrestricted super PACs may still raise and spend no more than $5,000 per election, is changing. Once principally a means for ambitious lawmakers angling for leadership posts to curry favor with their colleagues, some of the PACs are becoming multimillion-dollar operations unafraid to antagonize party leaders and weigh in on primaries.

DeMint set the pace when he launched the Senate Conservatives Fund in 2008, pioneering a new model built on vetting and promoting like-minded conservatives and rounding up or “bundling” small checks for them. The PAC, which raised $9.3 million in the 2010 cycle, became so influential that it spun itself off as a super PAC in July. DeMint now has no official ties with the group.

“It has definitely boosted our fundraising and helped us do some things in this cycle that we would not have been able to do,” Executive Director Matt Hoskins said of the PAC’s transformation. The PAC has two prongs: the Senate Conservatives Action super PAC and the conventional PAC, dubbed the Senate Conservatives Fund. The group has raised $12.8 million this cycle.

At least two GOP leadership PACs — the Reclaim America PAC, operated by Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), and the Constitutional Conservatives Fund, operated by Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) — have emulated DeMint. Reclaim America has helped four GOP Senate candidates with $100,000 this election cycle, PAC Director Terry Sullivan said, both in direct contributions and donations bundled on their behalf.

“I think this is a new avenue [leadership PACs] can explore, and I think more probably will,” Sullivan said.

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