Politics

Now a Democrat, Once a Republican?

Primary candidates make hay of donations to opposing parties

Randy Perkins is running in Florida's 18th District Democratic primary, but the businessman has a long history of political contributions to Republicans. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Randy Perkins wasn't even registered as a Democrat until he filed to run for Congress.  

His campaign contributions have favored Republicans over Democrats 2-1.  

He served on an advisory panel for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry's 2016 presidential campaign.   

But now he has the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's support in his primary bid for Florida's 18th District .  

He's running to fill the seat being vacated by Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy , who was a Republican until he ran for the House four years ago.  

From Iowa to New York, candidates whose party affiliations and campaign contributions suggest a degree of political flexibility are running for Congress.  Their primary opponents — both Democrats and Republicans — are trying to make hay of that.  

[ Candidates Decry Political Money, but Change Is Unlikely ]  

That's also been tried in the presidential race. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz attacked Donald Trump for donating to Democrats , including Hillary Clinton. It did him little good.   

But strategists on both sides of the aisle suggest that such attacks may resonate more in closed congressional primaries that tend to draw only hardcore partisans than they did in the presidential race.  

But there are limitations to any negative narrative about campaign donations.  

[ 6 Things Losing Candidates Say ]  

Whether those attacks stick generally boils down to two factors: how long ago the donations were made and who the recipients were, said longtime Democratic strategist Rick Ridder. 

A weakness to exploit?

Perkins' main primary opponent believes that his campaign contributions and ties to Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott are issues that will resonate with voters.  

In a mid-April poll of 450 likely Democratic primary voters, Jonathan Chane's campaign found two-thirds of the electorate had "very serious doubts" about Perkins when told about his contributions to Scott and other Republicans, said Molly Murphy of Anzalone Liszt Grove Research. For the Chane campaign, those numbers look like a weakness to exploit. Neither Chane nor Perkins are well-known by voters.  

But Chane still has to be able to communicate that message to voters. He ended the first quarter with only $300,000 in the bank, compared to Perkins' $2.1 million .  

Perkins is self-funding his campaign. One Democratic strategist suggested that was the reason the Democratic establishment has gotten behind him, despite his past political donations.  

[ Money Can't Buy Love — or in Some Cases, Even Elections ]  

Mitt Romney won this tossup district by 4 points in 2012, and it's going to be an expensive race. The DCCC, the strategist suggested, would rather save their resources for other races.  

Perkins disputes that theory.  

"You know the old adage: self-funders typically lose," he said in an interview Wednesday. He said he would have run as an independent if he could have, but chose the Democratic party because it's the party he most aligns with.   

Perkins has said his past donations were all about business — not politics.  

Perkins and his disaster clean-up company gave at least $1.6 million to Republicans since 2001. That's twice as much as he and the company gave to Democrats.   

Even from his personal checkbook alone, Perkins has given more than twice as much to Republicans as to Democrats, according to a Palm Beach Post review of his donations.  

“From a pure business standpoint, it’s my job to know every governor in this country — not just know them; they’ve got to know me,” Perkins told the Palm Beach Post  in January.  

[ Big Business Re-Evaluates Relationship With GOP ]  

Perkins is far from the first businessman to spread cash on both sides of the aisle.   

"I sign my checks to buy access," wine retailer David Trone said earlier this year. He poured $12 million into his ultimately unsuccessful Democratic primary campaign for Maryland's 8th District . Trone contributed $150,000 to GOP candidates since 2000.  

Perkins told Roll Call Tuesday that his donations were often motivated by friendships with people across the aisle and, as such, should be seen as a general election asset rather than a liability in a primary.  

"Here’s what I tell people: they should look at my relationships with Democrats and Republicans across this country as my way of being able to get things done."  

Another DCCC-backed candidate in a Democratic primary, who made much smaller contributions to Republicans than Perkins, is facing a similar line of attack.  

In the Democratic primary for Iowa's 1st District, Pat Murphy has attacked Monica Vernon in TV ads for having previously been a Republican and for donating to Republicans.  

Vernon was a registered Republican until 2009. Two decades ago, she gave $250 each to former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and former Iowa Rep. Tom Latham.  

But now, she too has tried to tie her primary opponent to Republican money.   

In a recent ad , her campaign attacks Murphy for taking "thousands" from KochPAC, the political action committee for Koch Industries. Murphy received $2,90 0 from KochPAC in 2006 and 2010.

Not just Democrats

It's not just Democrats launching these kinds of attacks.  

In New York's 19th District , a super PAC launched an ad  calling Republican candidate Andrew Heaney "Obama’s kind of Republican, not ours," because he gave $2,300 to then Sen. Barack Obama's presidential primary campaign.  

Heaney's primary opponent, John Faso , has run ads  with a similar message.   

[ A House Republican Moves Closer to Middle ]  

Faso is making it an issue because Heaney is trying to cast himself as the conservative in the primary, said Faso campaign consultant Bill O'Reilly.  

"Ultimately, we see it as a character issue," O'Reilly said. "It’s the tale of two Andrew Heaneys."  

The Heaney campaign counters that the donation to Obama was "part of a Republican effort to derail Clinton," and not indicative of any support for Obama.  

Heaney's team is trying to tar Faso with a Democratic brush as well, pointing to political contributions to Democrats made by a lobbying firm that employed Faso.  

"If we were in a race where it was a standalone issue, it would matter," said Heaney spokesman David Catalfamo. "But in this race, both candidates have donated to Democrats."  

Contact Pathé at simonepathe@rollcall.com and follow her on Twitter at @sfpathe .  

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