Why Did House Democrats Just Move Money to a Super Safe Seat?

House Majority PAC and other super PACs' priorities are not always what they seem. Donors' concerns, not party strategy, sometimes hold sway.

The top Democratic super PAC made a surprise move this week, shifting hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad money from a swing seat in New Jersey to a safe one.

Elsewhere in Democrats' battle to defend an unfriendly electoral map, the move might be seen as a retreat, giving up on taking a new seat and focusing on saving one they already have. But in this case, the decision is less about party strategy and more about what goes on behind the curtain between super PACs and their super donors.

On its face, House Majority PAC's decision makes little sense. Congressional Democrats are scrambling to protect seats in a difficult political environment. One district they've been hoping to pick up is New Jersey's 3rd, an up-for-grabs swing seat currently held by a Republican.

But House Majority PAC just spent nearly a quarter-million dollars on TV advertising time previously earmarked for the 3rd District in New Jersey's 1st instead—a deep-blue House seat where President Obama won with two-thirds of the vote and where Democrats have little chance of losing.

Why move the money? A look at House Majority PAC's fundraising from last month appears to hold the answer. The numbers suggest the group is now running ads in the 1st District because allies of well-connected Democratic candidate Donald Norcross gave them money specifically to do that.

House Majority PAC operates as the unofficial super PAC version of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, looking after Democratic candidates in tough races. This move doesn't fit into their typical strategy, but it does match up with some of their newest donors' local aims.

In September, House Majority PAC took in six donations, totaling $270,000, from labor unions and businesses tied in various ways to Donald Norcross, a New Jersey state senator.

  • The largest donation, $100,000, came from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 351. Norcross, the former president of the Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, is listed as an assistant business manager with the union.
  • Brown and Connery, the law firm that represents Norcross's powerful brother George, according to media accounts, also chipped in $50,000 to the Democratic super PAC. George Norcross is the preeminent Democratic political boss in South Jersey and possibly the entire state.
  • Another $50,000 came in from the Carpenters Fund for Growth and Progress, a 527 group connected to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. That union actually endorsed against the Democrat in New Jersey's 3rd District, the swing seat where House Majority PAC's money was originally to go. The UBC backed Republican Tom MacArthur in September, a few weeks before its donation to House Majority PAC, while Norcross's website touts support from the union's vice president.
  • Three additional IBEW locals from New Jersey also chipped in a combined $70,000 to House Majority PAC in September, according to the super PAC's September disclosure report to the Federal Election Commission.

And this week, House Majority PAC started airing an ad touting Norcross as a 30-year union electrician. "There are 211 lawyers in Congress, but not one electrician," the ad's narrator says. "So here's a bright idea: Donald Norcross." Unlike almost all of its ads, HMP did not announce the release of the New Jersey spot or post it online.

A spokesman for House Majority PAC declined to comment on the donations. Leaders with IBEW Local 351 and the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters did not answer requests for comment.

This is not the first unusual money move we've seen in New Jersey's 1st District this election. Norcross is unusually well-connected: In August, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went there to headline a fundraiser for Norcross in the midst of the battle to keep his post in the state Senate.