The Good Reason, and the Real Reason, to Refuse PAC Contributions

“A man always has two reasons for what he does—a good one, and the real one.”

J.P. Morgan

This week, Florida Republican Matt Gaetz — one of President Trump’s most vocal defenders and one of the savviest conservative politicians of my generation — “swore off” PAC money, as reported by POLITICO’s Quint Forgey

Rep. Matt Gaetz. | Alex Wong/Getty Images
Rep. Matt Gaetz. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Gaetz made the announcement at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), ensuring that his message would be widely covered in the press and heard throughout the conservative political community. Why?

The “good reason” he gave is, unsurprisingly, the same one that Democrats have been using to justify their self-imposed quarantine from PAC money for years: to free himself from the stranglehold of special interest influence.

“Honest capitalism is under attack. Not just from Bernie Sanders, antifa and the radical left — but by special interests and political action committees in the swamp of Washington D.C.,” Gaetz said during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“Irrespective of which party is in power,” he continued, “the winner in Congress is often the special interest that shuttles the most money to political campaigns.”

Truly, a good reason. But I suspect that the real reason is more compelling.

Since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, federal Democrats have sworn off PAC contributions nearly across the board. That position is then leveraged as a fundraising pitch to grassroots donors: we’re loyal to only you, and we’re counting on you to support us.

Here’s how Beto O’Rourke framed it in an email to his supporters during his 2018 campaign for U.S. Senate (emphasis from the original source):

Did you see Beto's big news from last night? In the last quarter of 2017, our campaign raised $2.4 million from more than 55,000 individual donations. And we out-raised Ted Cruz again. All without taking a DIME from PACs.

Our people-powered campaign is showing that it's possible to take on one of Washington, D.C.'s biggest insiders: Ted Cruz. And the latest polls show that we're within single digits.

Today, we are back at again and against our January 31 end-of-month deadline. Help us capture this momentum with a donation of $3 right now.

Source: Email received from Beto for Texas (Jan 29, 2018)

Anecdotally, the message works. Most of the most successful fundraisers in Democratic politics are the ones who’ve sworn-off PAC money and emphasized grassroots dollars. But their PAC prohibition isn’t entirely what it seems; the devil is in the details.

If you listen closely (as the PAC managers are), candidates who are swearing off PAC donations to their campaign typically aren’t refusing their help in tough races. In fact, these candidates are more than happy to see PACs make independent expenditures, or even funnel them direct donations through “tandem” pages (example), just so long as they keep their reportable PAC contributions to themselves. 

The result is the best of all possible worlds for candidates: clean hands, strong fundraising appeals, and the cavalry when they need it. That’s the “real reason” to swear off PAC contributions, and Gaetz almost certainly knows this. He’s smart to act on it now, before the rest of the GOP gets it, too.