The American Federation of Teachers has contributed $1.95 million to Senate Majority PAC so far this cycle, making it one of the group’s largest benefactors.
All the money and all the ads still may not add up to enough for Democrats to hold the Senate. Several of the Senate races that will decide control of the chamber are still far too close to call. Whatever the result, Senate Majority PAC has been credited with keeping the races close and Democrats competitive.
The results and the lessons of the election are certain to reverberate into the 2016 election cycle, when the White House will also be up for grabs.
Senate Majority PAC’s contributors each have their own reasons for spending to keep Senate Democrats in charge. Take Sealaska Corp., a southeast-Alaska based corporation created by a federal act and owned by thousands of native shareholders. The company contributed $10,000 to Senate Majority PAC in September.
Jaeleen Araujo, the company’s general counsel and corporate secretary, said Sealaska’s board wanted to support the re-election bid of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., the current chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, because Landrieu has supported the land legislation that is Sealaska’s top priority.
Senate Majority PAC has spent more than $2.4 million against Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Landrieu’s main challenger.
Sealaska is owed lands under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has sponsored a bill that would allow the company to acquire lands outside of those originally designated under the act. Sen. Landrieu is listed as a co-sponsor on an earlier version of the bill. The current version is now awaiting floor votes in both the House and the Senate.
“If you could even understand the effort we’ve had to put into this land legislation over the past four congresses,” Araujo said, adding that Landrieu’s continued support “is just so important to us.”
Araujo explained that she and others called contacts in Washington, D.C., trying to find out which group was best positioned to take a contribution aimed at boosting Landrieu. Araujo said a Washington, D.C.-based board member heard Senate Majority PAC would be a good option. Sealaska said the money was to be used to benefit Landrieu. “We did specify the direction on the check,” Araujo said.
Senate Majority PAC spokesman Ty Matsdorf declined to discuss how it used Sealaska’s contribution, citing a policy of not commenting on fundraising.
Senate Majority PAC’s largest contributor is environmental activist and former hedge fund investor Thomas Steyer, who together with his super PAC, NextGen Climate Action, which is primarily funded by Steyer, gave $5.5 million.
Chicago media mogul Fred Eychaner, the top donor to Democratic super PACs during the 2012 election cycle, gave $5 million, the next largest amount. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an advocate for stronger gun laws who has spent millions of dollars on elections so far this cycle, contributed $2.5 million.
Unions and groups associated with unions have so far contributed about $12.5 million, with the single largest amount — $2.75 million — coming from Working for Working Americans, a political action committee affiliated with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. Trial lawyers, via the American Association for Justice PAC, contributed $925,000.
Senate Majority PAC touts itself as running a “transparent” operation. But the description, while valid in part, belies the seven-figure amounts of support it’s received from “dark money” operations that don’t generally reveal the root sources of their funds.
For example, Patriot Majority USA, a liberal “social welfare” nonprofit that heavily supports Democratic political causes and doesn’t reveal its donors, has provided it more than $483,000 to cover salaries and insurance, FEC records indicate. Patriot Majority USA is led by a longtime ally of Reid, the Senate majority leader.
Senate Majority PAC has also accepted money from Indian tribes and limited liability companies, including $1 million in September from an outfit called HFNWA LLC. It has addresses in Arkansas and Washington, D.C., and is managed, according to Arkansas Secretary of State records, by Franklin L. Haney, a Democratic political patron and real estate mogul.
It also accepted $500,000 from the Campion Advocacy Fund, a “social welfare” nonprofit group that advocates for wilderness protection and an end to homelessness. The group is affiliated with the Campion Foundation, a private, nonprofit foundation founded by Tom and Sonya Campion. Tom Campion is the founder of the Zumiez clothing store chain. The Campions were listed as cohosts on an invitation to a $25,000-per-person Senate Majority PAC fundraiser in July that featured a dinner with President Barack Obama.
Another LLC contributor is listed as Elmendorf Strategies LLC, whose namesake, Steve Elmendorf, is one of the nation’s top Democratic lobbyists. The entity gave $10,000. Elmendorf’s lobbying partner is Jimmy Ryan, a former senior adviser to Reid. Ryan gave Senate Majority PAC $50,000.
Senate Majority PAC is also the driving financial force behind a self-described “nonpartisan” super PAC called Put Alaska First that is supporting Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.
Alaskans themselves have little to do with the funding of Put Alaska First: Senate Majority PAC has provided the super PAC with more than $8.6 million, 98 percent of the Alaska group’s total receipts — a fact that’s hardly obvious to Alaskans watching the thousands of TV ads the group has run to primarily bash Begich’s Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan.
Senate Majority PAC also describes itself as “independent.” But outside observers say the contributor list shows that even though Senate Majority PAC technically is an independent group, its establishment ties and ability to unite Democratic donors under a big-money tent show how closely it is connected to party leaders.
“Senate Majority PAC is run by a couple of Democratic aides, it has close ties to the leadership, to Harry Reid. It’s almost as if this is the return of ‘soft money,’” said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, which monitors money in politics, referring to unlimited contributions to national parties that were banned in 2002. “What this looks like to me really is, if you go back and look at the soft money donors, this is who a lot of them are.”
In all, the Center for Public Integrity reached out to nearly three dozen of Senate Majority PAC’s contributors. Many declined to speak for the record, although others explained why they’re supporting the group.
Heather Podesta, a lobbyist and prominent Democratic fundraiser who said she is on Senate Majority PAC’s board, has herself given $25,000 this cycle. She pointed to the super PAC’s successful record from the 2012 elections as proof of its effectiveness and as something attractive to donors.
“I would say that one of the reasons why these races are as close as they are and we haven’t seen Republicans break out as expected is the hard diligent work of Senate Majority PAC,” she said.
Elizabeth Simons, president of the Heising-Simons Foundation and the daughter of James Simons, the founder and former CEO of hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, explained in an email why she gave Senate Majority PAC $900,000, her largest-ever political contribution. Her father, a prominent Democratic donor, gave $2 million.
“This year I felt I had no choice in light of Supreme Court decisions that have collectively had the effect of handing political power to the rich and disenfranchising large swathes of Americans, primarily Democrats,” she said. “I am now a player in this sad game, but the other side has deep pockets, and so I decided to dig into mine.”