Does It Matter That Arizona U.S. Senate Candidate Mark Kelly Is Rejecting Corporate PAC Money?

By Bret Jaspers
Published: Thursday, March 7, 2019 - 9:32pm
Updated: Friday, March 8, 2019 - 10:07am

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Mark Kelly
Matt Kling/KJZZ
Mark Kelly speaks at his U.S. Senate campaign launch event in downtown Phoenix on Feb. 24, 2019.

In his campaign for the U.S. Senate, former astronaut Mark Kelly has promised not to take campaign contributions from corporate political action committees, also known as corporate PACs. Kelly made his pledge to reject corporate PAC money when he launched his campaign in February, and then this week, he put out a video about it.

“I’m not gonna take corporate money,” he said as the camera filmed him driving a car, shaking hands with people in restaurants and walking with his wife, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. “I feel that corporate money into campaigns poisons our democracy. So I’m gonna try to do this as a grassroots effort.”

These pledges became common last election cycle, and several current presidential candidates have made similar pledges. But with so many ways for big money to support a candidate, it’s not clear how meaningful it is.

The PAC Mentality

Under current rules, the corporate PACs that Kelly is rejecting can give $5,000 to federal candidates. These are different from other groups you hear about: SuperPACs and 501(c)(4)s, both of which can spend unlimited amounts of money on races but can’t coordinate with candidates.

Still, getting corporate influence out of elections is an important issue to rank and file Democrats like Natalia Espinoza of Glendale.

“He’s not asking for big corporations to sponsor him, so that way he’s not committed to any one person or group,” said Espinoza before a Democratic meeting in west Phoenix. “He’s there to do what the constituents want him to do.”

Kelly, a Democrat, is trying to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Martha McSally in 2020. His status as a challenger makes this kind of pledge a lot easier for him, according to Sarah Bryner, research director for the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a non-partisan group that researches money in elections.

“The kinds of candidates that tend to be rejecting this money tend to be the kinds of candidates who wouldn’t be receiving any of it,” she said. “PACs don’t give to challengers. And so they’re really saying, ‘No, thank you,’ to something that probably wouldn’t have been offered.”

What’s more, the amount of money candidates get from corporate PACs is a relatively small slice of the total. Looking at Arizona’s last U.S. Senate race, the CRP estimates 11.59 percent of contributions to Kyrsten Sinema’s campaign came from PACs of all kinds, as well as 5.88 percent of McSally’s contributions.

If the goal is to banish corporate influence over a candidate, Bryner said it’s unclear how Kelly’s pledge does that.

“Candidates take money from parties. Parties take money from corporations. Candidates take money, most of their money, from people. People work for corporations,” Bryner said. “Candidates take money from other candidates who may have taken money from corporations. How is that money sort of ‘cleaned’ to be truly separated from the ‘corporate influence?’ It’s impossible.”

"The kinds of candidates that tend to be rejecting this money tend to be the kinds of candidates who wouldn’t be receiving any of it."
— Sarah Bryner, Center for Responsive Politics

An Uphill Climb

With the astronomical expense of our campaigns, doing without any one source of money is not easy for a candidate, said Terry Goddard, former Arizona attorney general.

“If you’re a candidate and you are scrambling for every contribution you could possibly find, cutting off any source — I can tell you from experience — is a really painful thing to do.”

Goddard will soon re-launch an effort to force disclosure of large donors to nonprofits who spend on Arizona state and local elections. Goddard, a Democrat, is trying to get a voter initiative on the ballot in 2020. He sees anonymous, unlimited spending, often referred to as “dark money,” as a threat to democracy.

But he believes a pledge like Kelly’s is significant.

“Let’s just talk about this as a journey of many steps,” he said. “If we’re going to stand up against corporate money and we’re going to stand eventually against anonymous corporate money, I think the kind of step that Mark Kelly has made is a good start.”

Mark Kelly
Matt Kling/KJZZ
Mark Kelly greets supporters following his U.S. Senate campaign launch rally in downtown Phoenix on Feb. 24, 2019.

Grassroots

At least two questions remain:

1. Will an incumbent Mark Kelly, if he were to win, make the same commitment to not take corporate PAC donations? Kelly campaign spokesman Jacob Peters said his pledge is for now and in the future.

2. Will Kelly condemn anonymous spending that supports him or attacks his opponents? 

“The other hard thing to do is to actually condemn a group who is anonymous but is supporting your candidacy,” Goddard said. “That’s where sort of the rubber meets the road.” Bryner agreed that ultimately, what matters more in terms of corporate influence in our politics is dark money and Super PACS, both of which are hard for candidates to reign in.

Peters said Kelly does condemn the large amount of money in campaigns, and money from undisclosed donors in particular. But he also said Kelly “is focused on what he can control, which is why he is running a grassroots campaign that can win and allow him to fight for reforms that get big, secret money out of our politics."

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