Iowa Speaker of the House Linda Upmeyer has also raked in large sums of money for her unopposed bid, collecting more than $567,000.
“She is definitely someone who wields a lot of influence,” said Matt Sinovic, executive director of Progress Iowa, a liberal advocacy organization. “Nothing would come to the floor without her signing off on it.”
Donors with legislative agendas are among those giving to Upmeyer. The employee PAC of Iowa casino company Peninsula Gaming gave $2,000 to the Republican’s re-election bid. The business’ parent company, Boyd Gaming Corp., has been expanding its sports betting operations across the country, and a state lawmaker in Iowa has already pledged to introduce a bill to legalize sports betting statewide next year.
Boyd Gaming Corp. declined to comment.
In the past, Upmeyer has received hefty donations from people invested in a gun rights’ legislative agenda. Iowa businessman Frank Brownell, owner of the country’s self-described largest supplier of firearm accessories, and his son, Pete Brownell, former head of the National Rifle Association, contributed $50,000 to Upmeyer’s 2016 unopposed campaign.
The next year, she helped shepherd into law the state’s most expansive gun rights bill. The 2017 legislation also allowed the sale of short-barreled rifles and shotguns — guns that companies like Brownells sell.
“It makes perfect sense to me,” said the Rev. Wendy Abrahamson, a member of 26 Days of Action against Gun Violence in Grinnell, Iowa, who recalled seeing Pete Brownell at the committee hearing for the bill.
Upmeyer declined to comment and neither Brownell returned requests for comment.
In Massachusetts, Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo has raked in more than $935,000 for his unopposed run, despite his state’s relatively strict campaign finance limits. A spokesperson for the Democrat’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
At least 39 donors gave DeLeo the maximum amount the state allows per two-year cycle — $2,000 from an individual or $1,000 from a political action committee.
Among DeLeo’s donors were the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, the Massachusetts Bankers Association and at least eight unions, such as the Massachusetts Corrections Officers Federated Union.
“The unions and the groups that give to DeLeo — they know that in order to get anything done, you have to go through the speaker,” said Paul Craney, spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a group that advocates for transparency in state government. “The money goes to him on the campaign side, and the tax dollars that go out are directed by him.”
What does the money get spent on?
Illinois politicians control the biggest war chests nationwide among unopposed legislative leaders running this fall. The Senate president, Democrat John Cullerton, has so far amassed more than $5.8 million since his last election in 2014, while Democratic Speaker of the House Michael Madigan has collected at least $2.6 million since his last bid in 2016, according to a Center for Public Integrity Analysis of data from the National Institute on Money in Politics. Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady raised more than $930,000, slightly less than Massachusetts’ DeLeo.
By comparison, Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, who faces a Democratic opponent in the November election, has raised more than $2.4 million.
Eric Bradach, an analyst with the watchdog group Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said political donors hold sway with politicians in ways that average citizens do not.
"If someone were to donate $100,000 to one candidate … that candidate is most likely to pay more attention to the person who gave the $100,000 donation,” Bradach said. “They get more face time, more ear time from their respective party leaders.”
Bradach said legislative leaders use those vast sums to consolidate power, convincing lawmakers to toe the party line by offering to donate to cooperative lawmakers’ campaigns or threatening to fund challengers.
Cullerton’s campaign transferred nearly $3.8 million to other candidates or PACs, as of the latest state campaign filings that covered spending through June 30. Madigan, by that point, had transferred around $87,000.
In addition, Cullerton and Madigan are apparently fond of Chicago sports. Madigan’s campaign spent more than $513,000, and Cullerton’s paid more than $460,000, on tickets to see the White Sox, Cubs, Bulls and others play.
Illinois rules allow such spending as long as it is not for personal gain. Madigan’s campaign did not return calls requesting comment. Tom Elliott, communications director for the Illinois Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, said the tickets were given to charity groups or used for fundraising events “as a vehicle to cultivate new relationships with supporters and show appreciation and recognition of donors and volunteers.”
Brady, meanwhile, has transferred roughly $106,000 to other candidates or charities. He also has used his war chest to pay the Bloomington Country Club more than $24,000 for multiple golf outings, meals and drinks.
Brady’s campaign did not return calls requesting comment.
Back in Alabama, McCutcheon has spent about $111,000 of the $248,000 in campaign money he’s raised since his last race. More than $12,000 has gone to Republican groups.
But some of it has stayed closer to home. His campaign gave a $500 donation to his grandson’s basketball team and more than $25,000 for bookkeeping to a company incorporated by his son, Christopher McCutcheon.
Both expenditures may be in line with Alabama ethics rules. The Alabama Ethics Commission director declined to speak about McCutcheon specifically, but the rules allow candidates to give to nonprofits as well as pay family members who are providing a “bona fide service” to the campaign. McCutcheon told the Center for Public Integrity his son’s firm is doing bookkeeping and filing campaign reports for his unopposed bid.
McCutcheon said he plans to use any leftover campaign funds to host barbecue cookouts for lawmakers and their families to get to know each other better after the election — “rather than turning to lobbyists to pay for some of these events.”
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