Dispatch January 2010

The Money Pit

An abortion-rights PAC, Republicans for Choice, raises millions from donors. How come so little of that goes to elect pro-choice politicians?

Wharton Professor Yoram “Jerry” Wind calls himself a liberal Republican. Unhappy with what he considers far-right positions taken by his party, he searched for a way to change the GOP. Unsolicited, in July of 2000, Wind donated $250 to an Alexandria, Virginia-based political action committee: Republicans for Choice. Over the next nine years, he and his wife sent 10 more contributions to the same PAC, totaling $4,000. Like many of the more than 300 donors to the PAC since 2006, Wind expected that his contributions were going to help elect Republican candidates who support abortion rights—and “to fight against those who want to legislate against abortion.”

Since the formation of the PAC in 1990, documents show that Republicans for Choice has raised and spent more than $5.5 million. But a Center for Public Integrity analysis of the PAC’s more recent filings—along with data from CQ MoneyLine, which tracks political giving—reveals that over the past decade less than five percent of the committee’s spending has gone to political candidates, other political committees, or independent expenditures. And since 2005, just about one-half of one percent of the PAC’s nearly $1 million in spending has gone to federal or state campaigns, according to a review of records. By comparison, Federal Election Commission data show the average federal PAC in the recent 2007-2008 cycle dedicated about 35 percent of spending to support federal candidates. A comparison to other PACs on both sides of the abortion debate shows that groups similar to Republicans for Choice devote a much greater portion of their funds on candidates and campaigns.

So where did RFC’s money go? Mostly to what might be loosely defined as overhead. Much of the group’s spending has gone to the coffers of consulting companies owned by the PAC’s chair, Ann E. W. Stone. Those firms -along with payments to reimburse Stone’s expenses for travel, entertainment, and automobile repairs—account for more than two-thirds of RFC’s PAC expenditures since 2006. Hundreds of dollars more went to pay for Stone’s parking tickets.

Since post-Watergate campaign finance laws limiting individual contributions went into effect in the mid-1970s, more and more interest groups have created PACs. These committees allow individual contributors to band together, magnifying their impact and getting candidates elected who share their viewpoints. According to the FEC, the number of registered PACs grew from 608 in 1974 to more than 5,200 during the 2007-08 election cycle. In the last election, these thousands of PACs combined to distribute more than $412 million to federal candidates. But there are few rules and no accepted norms for PAC spending. As Paul S. Ryan, program director and legal counsel at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, notes, donating to PACs is a “contributor beware” proposition.

Republicans for Choice is hardly the only PAC about which spending questions have been raised. But its failure to bankroll moderate Republicans for high office is symptomatic of the party’s move to the right on many issues. With the recent withdrawal of pro-abortion-rights Republican congressional candidate Dede Scozzafava, who was abandoned by the national party in favor of an anti-abortion independent, it seems there is little support—financial or otherwise—for pro-choice Republicans.

Inspired by Lee Atwater

Stone, 57, is the founder, chairman, treasurer, and sole registered officer of Republicans for Choice. A veteran GOP political operative, she was a protégé of conservative direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie and, in 1991, an unsuccessful mayoral candidate in Alexandria, Virginia. She is also the ex-wife of prominent Republican strategist Roger Stone, who was known for controversial hardball tactics. She has often attributed the idea for her organization to the late Republican national chairman Lee Atwater.

Ann Stone created Republicans for Choice PAC in 1990. Tax-exempt political action committees such as RFC are authorized by statute to distribute funds to influence “the selection, nomination, election, or appointment” of political candidates. The committee lists three major goals on its website: locating and mobilizing a “pro-choice” majority within the GOP, fighting to remove anti-abortion language from the party’s platform, and raising money to elect pro-abortion-rights Republican candidates to state and federal office.

In the early ’90s, some pro-abortion-rights Republicans expressed skepticism about the true intentions of Stone and RFC. Nevertheless, Stone became the national face of abortion-rights Republicans. Every four years, during the Republican convention, Stone hits the airwaves to make the case for her party to support abortion rights. When asked about the organization’s achievements, she cites a long list: assembling a hefty directory of abortion-rights Republican donors and activists, achieving near-wins in platform language fights, defeating a proposal to withhold party funding from candidates who opposed a late-term abortion ban, organizing a 100-sailboat parade during the 1996 Republican convention, and recruiting promising candidates. Aided by that publicity, her PAC has raised big sums of money over the years: $850,000 combined over the 1992 and 1994 cycles, about $1 million in the 1996 cycle, and nearly $1.5 million in the 1998 cycle. Since the 2000 cycle began, RFC has raised about $2.9 million, including more than $350,000 in the 2008 cycle. FEC numbers show the average PAC’s per-cycle haul was roughly $82,000 in 1992, $110,000 in 1998, and $230,000 in 2008, putting RFC well above the median for PAC fundraising.

Following the Money

As RFC raised more funds in those early years, it began spending money, too - but it didn’t give much to candidates. In fact, unlike many similar committees, the amount of cash going to federal candidates—the bread and butter of most PACs—has never approached the 10 percent mark. When the question of the group’s spending was raised in a 1992 Legal Times article, Stone wrote a rebuttal. The first goal of the group, she said, was “not the election of federal candidates, but the election of pro-choice delegates” to the Republican National Convention. Including state campaigns, she added, 10.6 percent of total spending at that point had gone to “direct assistance to candidates,” putting the PAC in line with other major abortion rights political action committees. But in recent years, the group’s expenditures have not tracked with other major PACs on either side of the abortion debate. Since 1997, RFC has allocated less than 5 percent of its overall spending on federal candidates, political committees, and independent expenditures. Similar groups, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, have spent far more:

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