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Paul Specht
By Paul Specht November 21, 2019

Cunningham claim about corporate money is misleading

A Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in North Carolina wants to send a clear message: he won’t be a tool for big businesses.

Cal Cunningham, who’s campaigning to be the Democratic nominee against Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, says he won’t take money from corporate political action committees.

"That means this campaign is funded by people like you -- not the special interests," he tweeted on July 31.

Is it true that Cunningham has received no donations from special interests?

PolitiFact has investigated similar claims by former Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, Congressman Conor Lamb and, in North Carolina more recently, congressional candidate Kathy Manning

While it’s true that Cunningham hasn’t received money from corporate PACs, he has received money from business executives and PACs that receive money from corporations.

Corporate PACs

The Center for Responsive Politics tracks donations of all types, including political action committees (PACs.) PACs are generally put into three categories: business, labor and ideological.

The CRP’s campaign tracker backs up Cunningham’s claim that hasn’t accepted money from business PACs.

That’s not necessarily a significant sacrifice for Cunningham, according to Brendan Quinn, CRP’s outreach and social media manager. 

"Corporate PACs don’t usually give that much to challengers," Quinn said. When those PACs do donate to Democrats, he said they typically give to those in safe districts.

"Not much would go to a Democrat trying to swing a Senate seat in a purple state," he said.

Cunningham has received $10,000 from labor PACs, $22,590 from ideological PACs, and even more from PACs tied to Democrats in the U.S. Senate.

And that’s where Cunningham’s claim comes into question. He’s received money from PACs that get some of their money from corporations.

Other PACs

Cunningham has received thousands from PACs tied to individual senators, according to campaign finance disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission.

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For example, Cunningham received $10,000 from Forward Together PAC, which is affiliated with Democratic US Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia. According to CRP, Forward Together has received money from employees of Amazon, Microsoft, and other big corporations.

Cunningham also received $10,000 from Motor City PAC, affiliated with Democratic US Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan. Motor City recently received $5,000 donations from American Express, Charter Communications, Comcast, Delta Air Lines, FedEx, General Motors, Goldman Sachs and other large corporations. 

So, even if Cunningham has shunned corporate PACs, may have received money that originated with a corporation. Some experts consider that degree of separation that some experts consider significant.

Andrew Mayersohn, a committees researcher for the CRP, told PolitiFact last year that candidates who receive money from a Senate PAC money are more likely to feel indebted to the Senator than the company who donated to the senator’s PAC.

In some cases, though, there’s no separation between Cunningham and corporate leaders. Cunningham has received thousands of dollars from corporate executives.

CEO money

He received big individual donations from the CEO of a financial consulting group, the founder of a pharmaceutical company, and the president of Blue Shield California, among others.

End Citizens United, a group that aims to reduce the influence of money in politics, sees a distinction between receiving money from corporate CEOs and from corporate PACs. The PAC exists to benefit a company, while the motivation of an individual CEO is often unclear.

"Individuals can give to candidates for any reason," said Patrick Burwinkle, spokesman for End Citizens United. "That candidate could align with (the CEOs) values," from reproductive rights to foreign policy and other issues.

"And that's why - unlike Senator Tillis - Cal has taken and followed a pledge against taking corporate PAC money while also releasing a comprehensive anti-corruption plan that would reform Washington's broken political system," said Rachel Petri, spokeswoman for Cunningham.

Some, however, don’t see much of a difference in who the money is coming from. 

Corporate PACs are funded by the corporations’ employees, not the organization itself. "Every dime that goes into a pac is an individual dime, it’s just pooled resources," Cleta Mitchell, a conservative campaign-finance and election-law attorney told The Atlantic last year

Michael Williams, founder of the public policy and communications consulting firm The Williams Group, explained his skepticism to Fortune Magazine earlier this year.

"What’s the difference? If you won’t take a particular bank’s money, but you’ll take the bank executive’s money?" Williams told Fortune. "Are you really materially changing anything?"

Our ruling

Cunningham said his campaign hasn’t accepted corporate PAC money and isn’t funded by special interests.

It’s true that he hasn’t accepted money from corporate PACs directly. But he has accepted money from PACs that do accept money from big corporations. He’s accepted money from special interest groups, such as labor PACs. And he has accepted direct contributions from corporate executives. 

Cunningham’s claim contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.

Clarification: This report has been updated to clarify why the statement is rated Mostly False.

Our Sources

Tweet by Cal Cunningham, candidate for US Senate in North Carolina.

Email correspondence with Rachel Petri, spokeswoman for Cal Cunningham.

Campaign finance disclosures for Cal Cunningham filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Telephone interview with Brendan Quinn, outreach and social media manager at the Center for Responsive Politics.

Story by The Atlantic, "Why So Many Democratic Candidates Are Dissing Corporate PACs," posted Aug. 23, 2018.

Story by Fortune Magazine, "Democrats Keep Rejecting Corporate PAC Money. But Is It Just for Show?" posted April 15, 2019.

PolitiFact stories, "Like Beto O'Rourke, NC Democrat Kathy Manning claims no corporate PAC donations in her campaign," posted Oct. 28, 2018; "Conor Lamb's rejection of corporate PAC money needs context," posted March 17, 2018; "Beto O'Rourke claims near-uniqueness in not taking corporate or PAC contributions," posted July 27, 2017.

The North Carolina Senate 2020 race profile on OpenSecrets.org.

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Cunningham claim about corporate money is misleading

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