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By Caleb McCullough May 28, 2020

Theresa Greenfield’s no-corporate-PAC pledge needs some explanation

If Your Time is short

  • Theresa Greenfield says she has not taken money from corporate political action committees.

  • While technically true, some leadership PACs she has received contributions from get a sizable chunk of their funding from corporate PACs.

  • Greenfield’s funding is in line with End CItizens United’s pledge against corporate PACs, and campaign finance experts say leadership PAC donations don’t grant the same access as direct corporate PAC donations.

Theresa Greenfield, a Democrat running in the party’s Senate primary in Iowa to face Republican Sen. Joni Ernst in November’s general election, has made her refusal of corporate political action committee (PAC) money a major part of her campaign. Endorsed by the activist group End Citizens United, Greenfield’s campaign website touts a "grassroots campaign, by Iowans, for Iowans." 

"I’ve taken a pledge not to take one dime of corporate PAC donations," Greenfield said in an Iowa PBS debate with Democratic challengers on May 18. 

But how removed is Greenfield from corporate PAC money? Shunning corporate PAC money is generally not a huge sacrifice for Democratic challengers because corporate PACs give almost exclusively to sitting members of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics

Greenfield has not taken any donations directly from corporate PACs, a review of her most recent Federal Election Commission filings shows. Those filings, covering donations through March 31, show that Greenfield had received $62,100 from Democratic Party committees and $418,512 from other PACs, including Democratic leadership PACs. 

Corporate PACs are committees made up of employees of a specific corporation and funded by contributions from those employees. The company cannot donate directly to candidates but can underwrite some of the PAC’s expenses. 

Leadership PACs are committees affiliated with current or former members of Congress which often donate to candidates across the country, especially in races that are seen as competitive, such as Iowa’s Senate race. 

These leadership donations have raised criticisms from one of Greenfield’s Democratic challengers, businessman Eddie Mauro. He says the PAC money ties Greenfield to special interests,even if it isn’t directly from corporate committees. Mauro hasn’t taken money from any PACs in the primary race according to FEC filings, and his funding comes from individual donations and self-funding. 

"That leadership PAC money that she gets is full of pharmaceutical money, of fossil fuel money, of big ag money, and all kinds of money," Mauro said in the Democratic Primary candidates’ debate on May 18. 

Greenfield has received donations from 34 leadership PACs totalling $252,300 according to FEC filings, and many of them have in turn received donations from corporate PACs. 

Blue Hen PAC, associated with Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., has donated $10,000 to Greenfield’s campaign. Pharmaceutical and health product companies are the biggest donors to Blue Hen, according to the CRP, having received $42,500 from pharmaceutical PACs and employees.

AbbVie, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, and Amgen are a few of the drug companies that have made donations to Blue Hen. 

Several other PACs Greenfield has received donations from have similar contributions from drug companies and other corporate industries. 

Greenfield received $10,000 from Impact, a PAC associated with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Impact has taken $87,500 in donations from pharmaceutical PACs, $31,500 from Telecom companies, and $22,500 from commercial banks. 

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Companies that have donated to Impact include Comcast, Facebook, Bank of America, Lockheed Martin, and Honeywell International, as well as many of the same drug companies as Blue Hen.

While they make up a small percentage compared to other industries, Greenfield has received some donations from PACs with donors in the fossil-fuel industry. 

People’s Voice, a PAC associated with Sen. Tammy Baldwin D-Wi. that has donated $10,000 to Greenfield’s campaign, has received $7,000 in donations from U.S. Venture, a Wisconsin-based petroleum company. Common Ground PAC, associated with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., has contributed $10,000 to Greenfield’s campaign. Common Ground received a $2,500 donation from Tellurian Inc, a natural gas company in Texas. This donation makes up a tiny portion of Common Ground’s more than $1 million in funding

Greenfield isn’t the only candidate in the prima ry who has received these leadership PAC donations. According to FEC filings, retired Navy Admiral Michael Franken has received $1,000 from both Mass PAC, associated with Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., and Defense Dem PAC, associated with Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va. 

Still, Greenfield is accurate when she says she hasn’t taken corporate PAC money. She hasn’t taken donations directly from corporations. Advocates for campaign finance reform and Greenfield’s campaign argue that that’s an important distinction. 

"Corporate PACs are a specific designation under the FEC that in practice only exist for corporate special interests to gain influence. As Theresa has pledged, she is not accepting one dime of contributions from corporate PACs," Greenfield communications director Sam Newton wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan.

Greenfield has been endorsed by End Citizens United, an organization dedicated to reforming campaign finance and overturning Citizens United v. FEC, a 2010 Supreme Court case that allowed corporations more freedom to influence elections.

End Citizens United encourages candidates to pledge not to take corporate PAC money, which Greenfield was referencing in the debate. Patrick Burgwinkle, communications director for End Citizens United, said taking leadership PACs does not violate that pledge.

Burgwinkle said the separation between corporations and leadership PAC money recipients means the corporations don’t have the same influence over candidates that they would have had they donated directly. 

"If AT&T gave money to a senator, and then that senator turns around and gives money to Theresa Greenfield, AT&T hasn't gotten any access or influence over Theresa Greenfield," he said. 

The candidate may feel indebted to that particular senator, but a leadership PAC donation doesn’t grant the same access to a candidate that a direct corporate PAC donation does. 

Eleanor Powell, an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agreed, saying leadership PAC contributions don’t grant the same access that corporate PACs do.  Still, leadership PAC donations are a grey area in campaign finance, she said.

"It’s hard to have hard and fast true-false evaluation, given the messiness of modern American campaign finance law," she said. "Our system isn’t really well set up to make these really clear distinctions ... The system, right now, is just sort of inherently messy."

Our ruling

Greenfield says she hasn’t taken any corporate PAC money. That’s largely accurate in the sense that she has no donations directly from corporate PACs. She has been endorsed by End Citizens United, an organization that pushes to end corporate donations to politicians. Her funding is in line with their no-corporate-PAC pledge. 

Much of the money she has received from Senate leaders may have originated from corporations. But she didn’t seek it or receive it directly. Campaign finance advocates and experts agree there’s a difference between leadership and corporate PACs. We rated Greenfield’s claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Federal Election Commission filing for Theresa Greenfield

Federal Election Commission filing for Eddie Mauro 

Federal Election Commission filing for Michael Franken

Federal Election Commission filing for Common Ground PAC

PAC summaries on for Blue Hen PAC, Impact, People’s Voice PAC, and Common Ground PAC.

May 18 Iowa PBS Debate

Phone interview with Patrick Burgwinkle, communications director for End Citizens United

Phone interview with Eleanor Powell, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Email correspondence with Sam Newton, communications director for Greenfield for Iowa

Theresa Greenfield’s no-corporate-PAC pledge needs some explanation

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