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Warren Fiske
By Warren Fiske August 19, 2020

Spanberger's no-corporate-PAC pledge needs a 2.6% elaboration

If Your Time is short

  • Rep. Abigail Spanberger says she's kept a promise to reject corporate PAC money.
  • She does, however, accept contributions from leadership PACs that raise money from corporate PACs.
  • The Center for Responsive Politics estimates 2.6% of donations to Spanberger is indirect money from corporate PACs.

 

Rep. Abigail Spanberger sits in a yard with her parents during a TV ad, talking about the lessons they imparted.

"Growing up, my parents taught me, ‘Correct what’s wrong, maintain what’s right,’" the Virginia Democrat says. 

Then, Spanberger addresses something she’s trying to correct: Corporate donations to political campaigns.

"When I ran for Congress, I promised to refuse money from corporate PACs," she says. "I’ve kept that promise."

Spanberger is seeking a second term this fall in one of the nation’s most closely watched House races. She’s opposed by Republican state Del. Nick Freitas in Virginia’s 7th District which, prior to Spanberger’s election in 2018, had a long history of voting Republican.

The National Republican Campaign Committee says Spanberger is lying in her ad and accepting backdoor corporate contributions. So we fact-checked Spanberger’s claim that she’s spurned corporate PAC contributions, and found it needs elaboration.

According to her latest filings with the Federal Election Commission, Spanberger has raised $4.2 million in contributions since the start of 2019 through the end of June 2020. We found no money that came directly from corporations.

But the NRCC has a small point. While Spanberger refuses direct corporate donations, she accepts contributions from PACs that do take corporate contributions. In other words, she receives a small amount of corporate PAC money that has been filtered. 

A corporate PAC is affiliated with a specific company that gathers donations from its employees and distributes it to politicians and political interest groups. Corporate funds cannot be contributed to the PAC.

There are two main conduits that receive corporate PAC money and pass it on.

One of the pipelines is formed by leadership PACs, which are set up by most members of Congress to help candidates from their party. For example, Spanberger has received a maximum $10,000 from the Forward Together PAC, associated with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. Forward Together has accepted contributions from a list of corporations, including Merck, Citigroup, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, General Electric and Altria. We counted 60 leadership PACs that have contributed to Spanberger’s campaign.

The second conduit is formed by ideological PACs, which are established by groups focusing on special causes, such as regulation, defense or health care.

Spanberger has received $651,000 from PACs since the start of 2019. About $111,000 of that money filtered down from corporate PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics - a Washington nonprofit that tracks political money. The Center made its estimate by converting the percentage of money each Spanberger PAC donor received from corporations to a fraction of money it gave to her campaign. 

Perspective

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As we’ve said, Spanberger has raised $4.2 million since 2019 began. The $111,000 that trickled in from corporations is 2.6% of all contributions to her campaign.

Sixty members of Congress - including three Republicans - have promised not to accept corporate money, according to End Citizens United, a Washington nonprofit seeking to tighten campaign finance laws. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-2nd, is the only other Virginia congress member to make the pledge. Campaign finance advocates told us they’re unaware of any incumbent who is declining both corporate and leadership PAC money.

End Citizens United has endorsed Spanberger largely because of her no-corporate-money pledge and is not upset by her acceptance of leadership PAC money, according to Adam Bozzi, spokesman for the organization. Michael Beckel, research director for Issue One, another Washington non-profit seeking campaign finance reform, also told us Spanberger has been consistent.  

Bozzi and Beckel said direct contributions often give corporations access to politicians. They said office holders are far less likely to feel beholden to a corporation when its money has been filtered through a leadership PAC. "If anything, the candidate may feel indebted to the politician whose leadership PAC contributed to his or her campaign," Beckel said. 

Spanberger "has kept her promise to voters," Bozzi said.

Sarah Bryner, research director for the Center for Responsive Politics, said it’s become "vogue" for Democrats to decline corporate PAC money, but voters should be aware.

"Candidates trying to remove themselves are putting themselves in an awkward position because to completely shut themselves off from corporate donations right now is impossible," she said. "...If you need money to run a political campaign, unless you’re independently wealthy, you’re getting money from people. And most people work for corporations."

Bettina Weiss, Spanberger’s campaign manager, said, "Abigail does not take corporate PAC money. Full stop." She accused Republicans of waging a "farcical" attack on Spanberger’s fundraising.

Weiss noted that Spanberger cosponsored the For the People Act of 2019, a comprehensive voting rights, campaign finance and ethics bill aimed at reducing corporate influence on Congress. The measure, with 236 cosponsors, passed the House and has stalled in the Senate.

A final note: PolitiFact state bureaus have recently fact-checked two similar claims by politicians who said they have rejected corporate PAC money, but didn’t factor in leadership PAC money. Both claims were rated Mostly True.

Our Ruling 

Spanberger says she’s kept her promise to refuse corporate PAC donations. 

She’s raised $4.2 million - none directly from corporations, although an estimated $111,000 of corporate money has come in indirectly through other PAC contributions. That’s less than 2.6% of her campaign’s take, but it counts.

Realizing that it may be impossible to block all traces of corporate money from a successful congressional campaign, we rate Spanberger’s statement Mostly True.

 

Our Sources

Abigail Spanberger "Promised" TV ad, Aug. 4, 2020.

National Republican Campaign Committee, "Spanberger’s already lying," Aug. 5, 2020.

NRCC, "Spanberger lies again," Aug. 7, 2020.

Federal Election Commission, Spanberger report, Jan. 1, 2019 - June 30, 2020.

FEC, Forward Together PAC report, Jan. 1, 2019 - June 30, 2020.

Email from Connor Joseph, spokesperson for Spanberger campaign, Aug. 14, 2020.

Statement by Bettina Weiss, Spanberger campaign manager, Aug. 14, 2020.

Email from Adam Bozzi, spokesperson for End Citizens United, Aug. 13, 2020.

Email from Michael Beckel, research director for Issue One, Aug. 13, 2020.

Interview and emails with Sarah Bryner, research director for Center for Responsive Politics, Aug. 14, 2020.

OpenSecrets.org. "Leadership PACs," accessed Aug. 14, 2020.

PolitiFact Pennsylvania, "Conor Lamb's rejection of corporate PAC money needs context," March 17, 2018.

PolitiFact Iowa, "Theresa Greenfield’s no-corporate-PAC pledge needs some explanation," May 18, 2020.

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