DeMint's PAC Spends $1.5 Million in Independent Expenditures

South Carolina conservative breaks with tradition when it comes to campaign spending.

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In a sharp departure from typical campaign practice, South Carolina GOP Sen. Jim DeMint has used a leadership political action committee to spend $1.5 million dollars on behalf of 15 conservative Senate candidates in this year's midterm elections.

DeMint, one of the Senate's most conservative members, is using campaign finance laws to legally get around traditional limits on how much individual politicians spend supporting other candidates. In doing so, he is setting himself up as a key benefactor and king-maker in what figures to be a core of new senators who value conservative ideology at least as much as party. DeMint "wants to be the leader of what he hopes to be the dominant faction in his party," says Curtis Gans, director of American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

While it is not uncommon for elected officials to use leadership PACs--special fundraising committees separate from their personal campaign committees--to support like-minded candidates, an individual politician directing so much money to support a relative handful of candidates is extremely unusual. It illustrates that in a cycle in which DeMint has very visibly steered a political course separate from and often at odds with his party's leadership, he has also innovated how politicians spread campaign cash.

Politicians often set up leadership PACs to amass money and donate to other politicians. But because PACs can only contribute $10,000 per election cycle to candidates ($5,000 each for the primary and general elections), leadership PACs traditionally spread their money widely and evenly, diluting the impact of an individual $5,000 or $10,000 contribution in congressional races that can cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

But while DeMint's Senate Conservative Fund leadership PAC has contributed $55,000 directly to candidates this cycle, the bulk of its spending has been on so-called independent expenditures, which are not subject to legal limits. Independent expenditures are political communications that an organization makes in support of or against specific candidates, without coordinating with those candidates or their opponents. DeMint's PAC has spent around $1.5 million this cycle advocating for the election of 15 candidates, according to his PAC's spokesman. In at least six of the cases, the PAC spent more than $100,000 for the candidates, including over $212,000 for Nevada GOP Senate nominee Sharron Angle, more than $208,000 for Colorado GOP Ken Buck, $137,000 for Florida GOP nominee Marco Rubio, almost $122,000 for Indiana state Sen. Marlin Stutzman, who made a failed bid for the Hoosier Republican Senate nomination, and more than $117,000 on Utah GOP nominee Mike Lee, who is in line to succeed Sen. Bob Bennett, who lost his renomination bid at the state party convention in May (though DeMint's PAC did not spend money on Lee's behalf until after Bennett had been eliminated). This money has mostly been spent on E-mail list usage, as well as Web and radio advertising. Almost all of DeMint's chosen Senate candidates share three major similarities: they tend to be more conservative than other Republican candidates, they have all received Tea Party support on the local or national level, and, with one exception, none of them are incumbents. In all, the PAC has spent more than $10,000--the amount it would be legally permitted to contribute directly--on behalf of 13 of the 15 candidates.

Note: Figures reflect most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission; according to a Senate Conservative Fund spokesman, the PAC has spent roughly $500,000 more on independent expenditures since those filings.

Candidate State Independent Expenditures Status
1. Sharron Angle Nevada  $212,374 party’s nominee
2. Ken Buck Colorado $208,342 party’s nominee
3. Marco Rubio Florida $137,042 party’s nominee
4. Marlin Stutzman Indiana $121,808 lost primary
5. Mike Lee Utah $117,523 party’s nominee
6. Christine O’Donnell Delaware $108,047 party’s nominee
7. Ron Johnson Wisconsin $52,016 party’s nominee
8. Pat Toomey Pennsylvania $37,068 party’s nominee
9. Joe Miller Alaska $35,840 party’s nominee
10. Chuck DeVore California $33,776 lost primary
11. Dino Rossi Washington $31,709 party’s nominee
12. Rand Paul Kentucky $30,480 party’s nominee
13. Tom Coburn Oklahoma $13,136 party’s nominee
14. Michael Williams Texas $6,404 did not end up running
15. Ovide Lamontagne New Hampshire $1,077 lost primary

Such independent expenditures traditionally come from the major party committees or well-financed outside groups like labor unions. According to Federal Election Commission data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group, 162 PACs have made independent expenditures this election cycle, though DeMint's is one of only three leadership PACs to do so. North Carolina Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry's House Conservatives Fund has spent $6,000, and Arkansas ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee's Huck PAC has spent $1,155. The groups that have spent more on independent expenditures than DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund are the typical powerhouses of political ad buys, including the AFL-CIO, three national party committees, and 11 other unions.

"To see a leadership PAC making independent expenditures is highly unusual," says Anthony Corrado, professor of government at Colby College in New Hampshire. "Generally it's the case that the party handles the independent expenditures."

Matt Hoskins, spokesman for the Senate Conservatives Fund, says that his organization's spending patterns make more sense than those of other PACs. "The question that should be asked is why are the other ones not" spending on independent expenditures? asks Hoskins. "Why are they not using their PACs the way their PACs were structured to be used?"

Indeed, while other politicians have been generous with their leadership PAC money, their contributions have been more traditionally directed. For example, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor's leadership PAC, Every Republican is Crucial PAC, has contributed over $1.2 million to 169 Republican House candidates--101 of whom are incumbents, almost all of them safe bets for re-election--and seven GOP Senate candidates. House Minority Leader John Boehner's Freedom Project has donated $800,000 to 99 House candidates and seven Senate candidates. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's leadership PAC, the Bluegrass Committee, has donated $330,000 to 32 Senate candidates and eight House candidates. (DeMint has a second leadership PAC, MINT PAC , which has donated $35,000 to seven GOP candidates and reports no independent expenditures.)

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart says that the Kentucky senator's PAC backs all GOP Senate candidates simply for the sake of supporting his party as much as possible. "Once the voters of a state elect a nominee, [McConnell] is behind him," says Stewart.

DeMint, by contrast, has made waves within his party by pursuing what Corrado calls "more of an ideological approach to its giving than a partisan approach." The depth of DeMint's financial commitment to outsider, strongly conservative candidates suggests a focus not on the quantity of Republicans who win seats this fall but rather their ideological quality, and that emphasis has often put him afoul of party leaders this cycle. DeMint, for example, backed Tea Party favorite Rand Paul when McConnell, the state's senior senator, favored Paul's primary opponent. When his fellow senators endorsed Delaware Republican Rep. Mike Castle in his primary, DeMint backed Castle's opponent, Mama Grizzly O'Donnell. And when mainline Republicans backed New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte in that state's Republican Senate primary, DeMint endorsed attorney Ovide Lamontagne.

DeMint, for his part, denies that his PAC's spending is aimed at buying influence among a potential new crop of senators. "DeMint has told every one of these candidates, 'You owe me nothing. Your debt is to your country,'" says Hoskins. He adds that the discord that DeMint has caused among establishment Republicans is proof of his selfless motives: "If he was trying to build influence in Washington, this isn't the way to do it."

DeMint may have hit upon a winning strategy; 10 of the 15 candidates promoted by the Senate Conservatives Fund are still standing after primaries, and most of them are either in competitive races or have good chances of winning in November. Plus, now that these candidates are official Republican nominees, they are receiving support from the likes of McConnell. DeMint's fund has also shown that it is an effective fundraiser; it tweeted on September 20 that it had raised $95,000 for Alaska Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller in the 48 hours after Sen. Lisa Murkowski announced she would be a write-in candidate for the seat, having lost the Republican nomination to Miller in August.

Still, even if it proves successful, Hoskins is uncertain of whether this highly targeted use of leadership PACs will catch on among other politicians. "If members of Congress want to use their PAC to effectively elect candidates, they will use them for independent expenditures," he says. "Whether they will, I just don't know; the jury's out."

In an earlier version of this story, Republican lawmaker Mike Castle's current office was misidentified. He is a member of the House of Representatives.