Leadership PACs Grow Popular for Freshmen

Posted June 1, 2009 at 6:18pm

There was a time when it was considered poor form for a freshman Member to open a leadership political action committee immediately after being elected. And opening one before being elected was almost unheard of.

But it seems like those days have gone the way of the three-martini lunch.

Five months into the 111th Congress, the newest Members of the House have been particularly active in starting leadership PACs.

According to a search of Federal Election Commission filings, five Members who were elected in November already have their own leadership committees. That’s up from just two freshmen who had them at the same point of the 110th Congress.

“There has been an unwritten rule that you didn’t open [a leadership PAC] the minute you came to Washington. You certainly rarely saw that,— former FEC general counsel Larry Norton said. “I think there’s a trend toward doing it sooner and not waiting perhaps as long as Members waited in the past.—

The five freshmen who have already opened committees include four Republicans — Reps. Gregg Harper (Miss.), Duncan Hunter (Calif.), Tom McClintock (Calif.) and Aaron Schock (Ill.) — as well as Democratic Rep. Glenn Nye (Va.).

But since Democrats regained control of the House after the 2006 elections, they have also far outpaced Republicans when it comes to opening leadership PACs.

Just three of the 17 Republican sophomores had opened leadership PACs as of last week. Meanwhile, 15 of 50 Democratic sophomores have opened leadership PACs. Four sophomore Democrats have opened leadership committees in just the past three months.

Leadership PACs are a useful tool for Members looking to build goodwill within their respective caucuses. As such, they are often employed by lawmakers who have their eye on climbing the leadership ladder.

Sophomore Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) formed his Majority Committee PAC in August 2006 — before he was elected to Congress in November of that year — and he made more than $152,000 in disbursements from that committee during the 2008 cycle.

It’s no coincidence that McCarthy is seen as a rising star in House Republican ranks, and this Congress he was named the GOP’s Chief Deputy Whip and is serving as recruitment chairman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

McCarthy said Monday that MCPAC has already disbursed more than $78,000 to various campaigns and committees so far this year.

“When [freshmen] come and talk to me, I say there’s a couple different ways to help,— McCarthy said. “The thing I tell them is the way you help the party the most is … you put your own race away.—

But he said if Members want to go a step further — and have supporters who have the ability to donate money above what the FEC maximum level is for a campaign committee — he said a leadership PAC can be a great way to help the party.

Two Members of the current freshman class, Harper and Schock, opened their leadership PACs well before Election Day 2008. Both were candidates who had little to worry about in their general elections.

Schock formed his committee about two months after winning the 18th district primary. He cruised to a 21-point victory in November and along the way his Generation Y Fund made more than $80,000 in contributions by the end of the year.

Harper, who served as the Rankin County GOP chairman in Mississippi before being elected, opened GreggPAC in mid-October of last year and ended up distributing more than $40,000 from that committee by Dec. 31.

The Mississippi Congressman ended up making contributions to 30 Republicans who ran for Congress in 2008, 21 of whom won.

“By forming the PAC … six to eight weeks out from the November election it gave us the opportunity to help build the party and help some of the other incoming freshmen,— Harper said.

“I spent the years working in the trenches doing grass-roots campaigns,— he added. “And if you can do anything, whether it’s legwork or financially, to help good folks get elected, that’s something you want to do.—

Unlike the other freshmen who have opened leadership PACs, Nye does not sit in a safe seat. Republicans have already begun targeting him for 2010.

Nye spokesman Clark Pettig said Monday that the timing of when Nye opened his leadership PAC was influenced by the fact that Virginia has statewide elections this year.

“Most of his political focus has been on his own campaign. This is certainly a secondary concern,— Pettig said. “Basically, it’s just to help him keep his options open to have the ability to support candidates in Virginia without detracting from his own re-election effort.—