Tired of money in politics, some Democrats think small

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Dean Phillips, a Democrat running for Congress in Minnesota’s Third District, during an event in Chaska, Minn., July 29, 2018. Phillips has foresworn all PAC donations, including those from labor unions and fellow politicians.

EXCELSIOR, Minn. —

Like many political candidates, Dean Phillips spends hours each day fundraising and thanking his donors. But because he refuses to accept PAC money from corporations, unions or other politicians, he has adopted a unique approach.

“Norbert?” he asked on the doorstep of a man who’d donated $25 to his campaign. “I’m here with goodies!”

Phillips, who is running for Congress in the suburbs of Minneapolis, handed over a gift bag containing a T-shirt and bumper sticker. The exchange was recorded in a video that was shared later with his supporters to encourage them to contribute as well. Norbert Gernes, an 80-year-old retiree, was impressed.

“We desperately need to get the money out of the political system,” he said in an interview afterward. “Because I don’t think we have a Congress that’s representing the people any more.”

Campaign finance was once famously dismissed by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, as being of no greater concern to American voters than “static cling.” But since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 opened the floodgates for unrestricted political spending, polls have shown that voters are growing increasingly bitter about the role of money in politics.

The issue is now emerging in midterm races around the country, with dozens of Democrats rejecting donations from political action committees that are sponsored by corporations or industry groups. A handful of candidates, including Phillips, are going a step further and refusing to take any PAC money at all, even if it comes from labor unions or fellow Democrats.

Rather than dooming the campaigns, these pledges to reject PAC money have become central selling points for voters. And for some of the candidates, the small-donor donations are adding up.

In Minnesota, Phillips, a Democrat, has raised more than $2.3 million, 99 percent of it from individuals, and has used his no-PAC-money pledge to mount a formidable challenge in a district that Republicans have held since 1961. His opponent, Rep. Erik Paulsen, who sits on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, has raised $3.6 million, more than half it from PACs.

In Texas, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat running to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, has raised more than $23 million in this election cycle — considerably more than Cruz — without accepting any PAC money.

“It’s a major theme of the campaign,” said Chris Evans, O’Rourke’s communications director. “People want to know that you are going to respond to them and their interests, and not the most recent check you received.”

In Pennsylvania, Conor Lamb, a Democrat who pledged not to take corporate PAC money, eked out a victory in a special election in March in a district that President Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016. In Ohio, another Democrat running in a red district, Daniel O’Connor, made the same pledge, and performed so well in a special election this month that the race is still too close to call.

+  Danny O'Connor, the Democratic candidate in Ohio's 12th District special election, during an event in Newark, Ohio, July 24, 2018. O'Connor photo
Danny O’Connor, the Democratic candidate in Ohio’s 12th District special election, during an event in Newark, Ohio, July 24, 2018. O’Connor

A recent Pew report found that 75 percent of the public said “there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations” can spend on political campaigns.

“Poll after poll is showing that money in politics has more traction today than it has had in my life time,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a nonpartisan advocacy group concerned with ethics and accountability, who has been working on the campaign finance issue for decades.

Under current federal rules, a candidate’s campaign cannot accept more than $2,700 from any individual donor or $5,000 from any single PAC. Groups known as Super PACs, however, can legally receive and spend unlimited amounts to influence a race, as long as they do not coordinate their activity directly with a candidate’s campaign.

Frustration with corporate influence in politics was…

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