Democrats gained their majority in the House of Representatives in 2006 partly by making peace with corporate interests and relying on funding from corporate political action committees, or PACs.
According to data collected by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, 54 percent of the House Democrats now receive more of their campaign funding from corporate PACs than from labor union PACs or from ideological PACs, such as abortion rights or environmental groups.
The Center includes lobbyists and lawyers in its corporate PAC category.
The Potomac Primaries are on Tuesday, which includes Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. On the ballot in Maryland is a test of whether Democrats will remain aligned with their corporate PAC funders, or will take an adversarial approach, disdaining corporate PACs.
Democratic Rep. Albert Wynn has represented a district in Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C. since 1993.
He is backed by corporate PACs, especially those in the energy industry, and is trying to stave off a challenge from Donna Edwards, who accepts no corporate PAC money.
However, Edwards is supported the big labor union, the Service Employees International (SEIU), and the left-of-center group Moveon.org, as well as other anti-corporate forces.
Wynn's campaign had raised $1 million as of Jan. 23, while Edwards had raised nearly $800,000.
Massive spending to defeat Wynn
But the most decisive money will likely be that spent by outside groups.
According to Federal Election Commission records, since Jan. 1, SEIU has spent more $1 million in an effort to defeat Wynn.
The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) has spent nearly $130,000 against Wynn, even though he has a 92 out of a perfect 100 rating from the group. Wynn’s LCV rating for 2006 was higher than 63 other House Democrats.
Since Jan. 1, Emily's List, a group which backs Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights, has spent nearly $112,000 to oust Wynn. He has consistently voted against any attempts to restrict abortion, such as the bill to outlaw the procedure known as partial-birth abortion, which Congress passed in 2003.
And Moveon.org has spent $152,000 against Wynn since the start of the year.
While Moveon.org and other Democratic-allied groups are willing to give a pass to centrist House Democrats in southern and rural districts, they’re determined to defeat Wynn whom, they contend, is out of step with his district.
In a fundraising e-mail last month, Moveon.org said Wynn's battle to hold on to his seat "is being watched closely by other Democrats who are wondering if they'll be held accountable for cozying up to corporate lobbyists."
“Yes, I receive money from political action committees, but they’re transparent and limited to $5,000,” Wynn said. Wynn has benefited from $300,000 in independent spending on his behalf from the National Association of Realtors but the money from SEIU and other anti-Wynn groups outweighs it.
Until recently Edwards was executive director of the Arca Foundation which gives money to political and social advocacy groups such as the Alliance for Justice and the People for the American Way Foundation, which have led the opposition to President Bush's judicial nominees.
In 2005, the Arca Foundation gave $45,000 to a group called Women's Voices Women Vote. According to the Federal Election Commission, the political action fund of Women's Voices Women Vote has spent more than $46,000 to support Edwards since Jan. 1.
In 2004, the Arca Foundation gave $50,000 to the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund.
A push 'to the extreme left'?
Wynn calls the SEIU/Moveon.org/LCV crusade against him “a massive effort to control the party. This isn’t just about me. This is a massive effort to push the party to the extreme left. If a 92 percent rating with the League of Conservation Voters, if a 100 percent pro-choice record, if 93 percent with organized labor, is not liberal enough, you have to wonder what exactly is the agenda these folks are promoting?”
Among those supporting Wynn are the AFL-CIO’s Washington, D.C., Metro council, the Maryland State Teachers Association, and the Montgomery County Firefighters.
They are "the mainstream of Democrats,” Wynn said, in contrast to his foes, who he called “some other folks, largely from out of town, who are extreme Democrats.”
Edwards nearly defeated Wynn in the 2006 primary and she’s hoping to complete the job Tuesday.
Edwards said she wants to end corporate PAC funding of campaigns. She said Wynn's reliance on energy firms' PAC money is problematic given that he has a seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“I think the corporate special-interest money deeply influences our politics and our policy. The congressman has voted for tax subsidies for oil and gas companies many of whom appear before the Energy and Commerce Committee,” Edwards said as she campaigned in Largo, Md., on Saturday. “We have to sever the link between that kind of political campaign money and our policy.”
A corporation can not contribute directly to a candidate, but employees of that corporation can give money to their company’s PAC, which in turn can give a maximum of $5,000 per election to a candidate.
To take one example of funding by corporate PACs, the Exelon PAC, one of Wynn’s $5,000 funders, has also contributed campaign money to 33 other House Democrats and to five Democratic senators in the 2007-2008 election cycle.
Exelon has also given $15,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Exelon is the largest nuclear power plant operator in the United States.
“She’s hypocritical. She’s taking money from some of those interests, individual lobbyists and lawyers for oil companies and telecom companies. She took money from the CEO of something called Bonanza Oil,” Wynn said.
Votes draw fire from foes
Wynn’s critics point, among other things, to his votes to:
- Authorize President Bush to use force in Iraq;
- Repeal the estate tax in 2005;
- Authorize federal court intervention in the Terri Schiavo case in 2005.
“He voted to interfere (in the Schiavo case) along with Bush and (former House Majority Leader Tom) DeLay,” said Edwards campaign volunteer Joe Corbett, who lives in the town of Olney in Wynn’s district. “I called him and I said, ‘this is outrageous. This district is against this. The problem is you’re out of touch with your district.’ When you tell people he voted for the Schiavo bill, people are against him. But they didn’t know that he voted for it.”
Wynn admits his vote for the Iraq war authorization was “a mistake. I did not hedge on that issue; I said that in 2004, not in 2006. People know that Sen. Clinton, Sen. Kerry, Sen. Edwards, (House Majority Leader) Steny Hoyer made the same judgment as I did, so it is not a case of my judgment being totally outside the realm of the Democratic mainstream.”
Backlash against ad spending?
There’s some evidence that the torrent of anti-Wynn radio and TV ads may be alienating some voters.
On Saturday, greeting voters outside the Giant supermarket in Largo, Md., Edwards shook hands with one older man emerging from the store with shopping cart full of groceries. He then gave her a scolding.
The anti-Wynn TV ads, he said, had become a nuisance.
“Those ads are constantly on. You couldn’t possibly have raised all that money,” the man told Edwards. “I was going to vote for you, but I got suspicious of those ads. I don’t really appreciate those ads. You have lost my vote and my wife’s vote.”
Edwards gamely replied, “I can’t control what other organizations do… when I’m elected, I’ll be open and accessible to you, even when you disagree with me.”
But before tangling with that man, Edwards had also met one local resident, Roger Alston, who’d soured on Wynn not for ideological reasons, but for allegedly flunking the most basic job of a House member: constituent service.
Alston said local business people had started Mountainside Gourmet Coffee in Forestville to roast and package coffee. “We had Wynn come into the plant. He said he was going to support us. He did not do one thing, never did anything.” He said the firm wanted to get into Sam’s Club, but had not been successful. “We’re a certified minority company, he could have helped us, and he never did.”
Tax liens against Edwards
In the closing days of the primary campaign, Wynn has lashed out at Edwards for failing to pay taxes in 1994, 1995 and 1999 which resulted in a tax lien placed against her in 2002.
In a statement on her web site, the Edwards team explained that, “Like so many working moms in our community, Donna faced some tough challenges. Raising a son for years with no child support and almost losing her home because of big hospital bills. …Donna worked her way out and paid every cent she owed, including a hundred thousand dollars in student loans.”
But Wynn said Edwards's explanation of her non-payment of taxes is “an insult to all the single mothers who are working hard, have debts and have to negotiate payment plans. She’s somehow trying to say she’s special, she’s entitled to have a debt for ten years and not make any payments on it.”