Corporate PACs, often maligned on the campaign trail, have a new problem to confront: Getting checks to campaigns they’ve already pledged to support at events that happened before the coronavirus pandemic halted in-person fundraisers.
“They’re trying to find workarounds,” said Kristin Brackemyre, director of PAC and government relations for the Public Affairs Council.
The predicament for business political action committees affects just one source of funds for some candidate coffers, but it illustrates the difficulties campaigns face as a crucial March 31 fundraising deadline looms.
Many campaigns are sending out urgent appeals for online contributions and tout the deadline, because the fundraising disclosures that follow are often a benchmark for donors looking to put their money where it will have the most impact. A big first quarter number for a challenger can lead to more contributions as the year goes on because they are seen as serious contenders; conversely, an incumbent having a huge quarter could convince donors to support challengers in another district instead.
The problem is especially acute now because campaigns know that raising money is likely to get even tougher in the second quarter, as the economy slides and unemployment spikes.
Strategists in both parties said they expect to see lower first-quarter totals when they are disclosed to the Federal Election Commission in mid-April.
Cam Savage, a GOP strategist, said a significant portion of quarterly fundraising comes in at the end, when donors respond to deadlines.
“Now you have a disruption at the end of the deadline,” Savage said. “There’s no question that’s going to hurt.”
A virtual shift
In the age of email blasts that ask individuals to donate by credit card, many corporate PACs still rely on delivering checks, some of which require more than one signature, Brackemyre said. Getting them out to campaigns has gotten more difficult as the people who must sign are displaced from their offices.
“The reality is it’s just taking longer,” she said, noting that some companies have begun to explore electronic payments.
It’s the events that won’t happen, though, that have campaign insiders scrambling.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee signaled what was coming when it announced the cancellation of its typical in-person events routinely attended by lobbyists and corporate executives.
“I’ll be frank with you: This decision will cost us money,” the DSCC’s executive director, Scott Fairchild, said in an email sent Friday soliciting money. “A large chunk of our fundraising is going to dry up. And to compensate for this shortfall, our Democratic Senate campaigns will need the support of this online community more than ever.”
It’s a bipartisan problem.
The National Republican Congressional Committee had to postpone its big spring fundraising dinner, set for April. The NRCC’s Bob Salera said it was just “too soon” to know how the pandemic may affect political fundraising efforts going forward.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s weekly email roundup of upcoming fundraising events, sent on Friday, showed all events, more than 100, were canceled through April 17.
Party committees and campaigns have put an even greater emphasis on online fundraising.
Democrats had already found success fundraising online, thanks in part to a surge in small-dollar donations among the grassroots following President Donald Trump’s election. Vulnerable House Democrats, many building on email lists amassed as candidates in 2018, amassed sizable campaign war chests in 2019.
GOP leaders have pressed their candidates to step up their efforts and to utilize the party's preferred platform, known as WinRed.
A WinRed spokesperson reported that donations are flat to slightly up for this quarter but did not offer specific numbers.
The Democratic platform ActBlue, meanwhile, has processed more than $5 million donations in recent days from 100,000 individuals to nonprofits that are focused on COVID-19 relief efforts, a spokesman for the company said, in response to candidates’ efforts to help the organizations in lieu of their own coffers. The charitable money shows that donors are still willing to give, an ActBlue spokesman said.
Fundraising emails abound
New campaign emails soliciting donations acknowledged the coronavirus crisis, but still made an ask for money for the candidates.
The campaign of Rep. Angie Craig, a Minnesota Democrat, sent an email March 25 prefaced with the freshman lawmaker’s focus on “helping the folks and businesses in her district get through this public health emergency.”
The request later spelled out that the campaign’s first quarter campaign reports would close out soon. It ended: “Will you join our campaign by chipping in any amount right now?”
Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey, who faces a challenge in the Democratic primary from Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, included a similar message atop a request for donations before the end of the month.
“At a time when so many are facing hardship and uncertainty, we understand if you cannot afford to donate right now,” the Markey email sent Wednesday said. “We are just grateful to be in this fight with you.”
Mike Siegel, a Democrat vying to challenge Texas GOP Rep. Michael McCaul, said in a recent interview that the pandemic's impact on fundraising isn’t clear yet, but he has had some donors limit their contributions. Siegel faces fellow Democrat Pritesh Gandhi in a runoff, which was recently rescheduled to mid July due to the pandemic.
“As a candidate, it’s a very weird situation to be in,” said Siegel, an attorney. He said parts of the campaign, such as fundraising, “feel frivolous in this moment” when potential donors might be facing economic insecurity.
“At the same time, at this moment we see how important representation is,” he said.