After pledging not to take corporate PAC money during his 2017 campaign for Congress, Rep. Greg Gianforte accepted nearly $20,000 in corporate PAC donations during the fourth quarter of 2017.
“I have been taking PAC money,” the Montana Republican said Tuesday.
Asked if he would make a similar pledge not to accept that money later in his 2018 campaign, Gianforte — who had just boarded an elevator off the House floor — looked down and shook his head, letting the elevator doors close.
It’s not unusual for candidates to make some variation of “no PAC” pledges — a growing number of Democratic challengers are making similar commitments this year. But nonincumbent candidates often aren’t forgoing all that much money when they make these pledges. It’s the incumbents, who serve on committees relevant to industry, who benefit more from PAC money and stand to lose more from such promises.
Gianforte serves on the Natural Resources Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Corporate PAC contributions during the fourth quarter totaled $18,500 and came from coal companies, a private prison company, BNSF Railway, Lowe’s, Home Depot, UPS, a timberland company and Koch Industries.
He also accepted nearly $30,000 from sources that the Federal Election Commission characterizes as trade associations, cooperative organizations, labor organizations or membership organizations.
Watch: Fundraising Reports Say a Lot About a Campaign
An early vow
Gianforte first made the pledge against taking all PAC money when he was running for governor in 2016. He made it the subject of a campaign ad and attacked Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock for not making the same commitment. Gianforte ended up losing that race, but not before spending $6 million of his own money.
The following year, he ran in the special election for the open at-large House seat after GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke was appointed secretary of the Interior.
Gianforte’s congressional campaign relaxed his original pledge from refusing all PAC money to refusing only corporate PAC money. His campaign accepted money from political party and leadership PACs.
But comments Gianforte made on a national fundraising call during the race raised questions about the pledge when he suggested industry PACs could contribute through “our victory fund.”
“We do not accept any industry PAC money, although if someone wanted to support through a PAC, our victory fund allows that money to go to all the get-out-the-vote efforts,” he said on the call.
Gianforte’s campaign insisted he was not referring to his joint fundraising committee (called the Gianforte Victory Fund), which he shared with the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Montana Republican State Central Committee. The campaign admitted Gianforte’s choice of words was confusing but insisted he was actually referring to the Republican Party when he said “victory fund.”
Also on that phone call, Gianforte explained why his congressional campaign wasn’t accepting corporate PAC money.
“And the reason for that is I came off the governor’s race last year having made a big deal about not taking any PAC money, and it would be a self-inflicted wound. We are starting to lessen that by taking political PAC money. That’s why we took the leadership PAC money from members in the House but not industry PAC money directly to the campaign,” he said.
A change of heart
Democrats ridiculed Gianforte, a wealthy businessman, for making these pledges during his gubernatorial and congressional bids since he spent his own money on his races. His 2017 campaign was also buoyed by nearly $3 million in outside help from the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC tied to House GOP leadership, which identified Gianforte as a “flawed candidate” early on in the race.
Gianforte’s Democratic opponent, Rob Quist, also said he would not accept corporate PAC money. He had the support of End Citizens United, the liberal PAC that backs Democrats in favor of a campaign finance overhaul. Its PAC made a $5,000 contribution to him and its donor network raised about $415,000 for his campaign, with an average donation of $12.
Gianforte defeated Quist by 6 points in the May 25 special election, hours after being cited with misdemeanor assault for physically attacking a reporter.
He was sworn into Congress in late June, days after pleading guilty to assault. He did not report receiving any PAC money on the first two fundraising reports he was required to file after coming to Congress.
Responding to Gianforte’s acceptance of PAC money now that he’s in Congress, End Citizens United highlighted the relatively short time it took the congressman to change his policy.
“This is record time for a politician to break a promise, even in Washington. It was only a matter of months between his election and when he flipped on Montanans by taking the special interest money he promised to reject just last May,” the group’s executive director, Tiffany Muller, said in a statement Tuesday.