One important distinction to make is what kind of money the candidates are actually rejecting. Many have cited the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which paved the way for the creation of super PACs, as their motivation for ditching corporate contributions. But not accepting corporate-PAC money has little to do with super PACs.
Here’s how it works: PACs are typically broken down into three categories—labor, ideological, and corporate. These groups can donate $5,000 per candidate per race. Corporate PACs are composed of funds gathered from individuals who work for a company and are given directly to a candidate in the name of that company. These three PAC categories are not to be confused with super PACs, which can spend unlimited amounts of money but cannot give directly to candidates. Instead, super PACs (think Club for Growth Action or NextGen Climate Action) typically make ads for or against certain candidates or issues.
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When candidates reject corporate PACs specifically, they aren’t actually rejecting corporations’ resources: The money isn’t coming from company bank accounts—it’s coming from employees. For this reason, critics of the no-corporate-PAC pledge see it as more of a political maneuver than anything else. “Every dime that goes into a PAC is an individual dime, it’s just pooled resources,” said Cleta Mitchell, a conservative campaign-finance and election-law attorney. “Why is their money tainted just because they work for a company?”
Candidates can still accept donations from individual employees or owners of corporations, and those contributions can add up. A corporate PAC can only give $5,000 to an individual candidate an election, but two of the same company’s executives could individually donate a total of $5,400 an election. Ocasio-Cortez wouldn’t accept money from a PAC associated with J. P. Morgan, but a J. P. Morgan employee recently maxed out an individual contribution to her, giving her campaign $2,700.
Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign offers another example of how messy this PAC business can get. O’Rourke, who’s challenging the Republican Ted Cruz, has vowed not to accept “a penny from PACs” of any kind. But the JStreetPAC, which supports Democrats favoring a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has collected more than $170,000 from its members to be donated to O’Rourke’s campaign individually. In other words, the contributions were facilitated by a PAC, but didn’t come from it.
Out of the 3,059 nonincumbent candidates running this cycle, only 397 have raised any money from business-related PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics. Incumbents typically receive more corporate-PAC donations, but they’re usually a small percentage of their total funds. For example, Gillibrand has received $4,955,153 from business-related PACs over her political career, amounting to 9 percent of her total contributions, according to the CRP. Harris has received roughly $353,265 from business-related PACs—slightly less than 2 percent of her total contributions. For Booker, business-related-PAC donations made up almost 8 percent. (According to CRP, “business related” PACs count as corporate PACs, corporate-affiliated PACs, and trade associations.)