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February 03, 2014

Amidst Talk of Presidential Run, Sanders Ramped up Political Fundraising in 2013

BernieSen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ramped up his political fundraising last year as he hinted at a possible 2016 run for president, according to new documents filed late last week.

In the second half of 2013, Sanders raised nearly $327,000 for Progressive Voters of America, a "leadership political action committee" he recently revived. The second-term senator, who does not face reelection until 2018, raised an additional $15,000 for his traditional campaign account in the final three months of the year.

Year-end fundraising and spending reports filed Friday with the Federal Election Committee show that all three members of Vermont's congressional delegation — Sanders, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) — have come to rely upon so-called leadership PACs to conduct political business. In addition to their traditional campaign accounts, members of Congress can establish such entities to raise money and spend it for political purposes, though not explicitly on their own reelection campaigns.

Before last year, Leahy led the way in steering support to a leadership PAC; his is called Green Mountain PAC. But in March, Welch filed paperwork to establish his own, called Maple PAC. And in July, Sanders announced to his email list that he would focus on building up Progressive Voters of America, a leadership PAC he founded in 2004, but which never previously raised more than $51,000 per quarter. Sanders said at the time he hoped to use the group to "create a strong grass-roots movement in all 50 states, and work hard to elect progressive candidates at the local, state and national level."

Sure enough, in the second half of 2013, Sanders raised $327,000 for PVA, far more than the $33,000 his campaign account, Friends of Bernie Sanders, raised in the third quarter and the $15,000 it raised in the fourth quarter.

Similarly, Leahy raised just $34,000 for his campaign account, Leahy for U.S. Senator, in the third quarter of 2013 and $29,000 in the fourth quarter. (He won't face reelection until 2016.) But his Green Mountain PAC raked in more than $181,000 during that time period. 

Welch's Maple PAC hasn't yet caught up with his traditional campaign kitty. The fourth-term Democrat — Vermont's only member of Congress up for reelection this November — raised $213,000 for Welch for Congress in the third quarter of 2013 and another $128,000 in the fourth quarter. His fledgling Maple PAC raised $44,000 during that period. 

Asked after a press conference in Winooski on Monday why he established a leadership PAC, Welch said, "To help colleagues who are like-minded and help [U.S. House Democrats] have either a stronger minority or a majority."

But a look at who donated to Welch's leadership PAC provides another clue as to why he started it. 

Every last dollar Welch raised for Maple PAC came from corporate and union special interest groups. Several of those groups have also given handsomely to his traditional campaign account.

For instance, Honeywell International's PAC contributed the most recent of $6,000 worth of donations to Welch for Congress on December 6, 2013. That same day, Honeywell gave another $5,000 donation to Maple PAC, making the company one of Welch's most generous donors.

Most, if not all, of the special interest groups that contributed to Maple PAC also donated to Welch for Congress. Those that contributed $5,000 to Welch's leadership PAC included the American Crystal Sugar Company, the American Society of Anesthesiologists, General Electric, Honeywell, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the National Association of Convenience Stores.

One reason Vermont's congressional delegates may have taken a liking to leadership PACs is that their existence makes it more difficult to track how much money they accept from corporate and union PACs — particularly if reporters and members of the public don't know where to look.

For instance, Leahy's campaign account raised only $35,000 from special interest groups in the second half of 2013, out of a total of $60,000 raised. But in that same period, his Green Mountain PAC raised another $103,000 from such groups, out of a total of $181,000. 

Similarly, $205,000 — or 60 percent — of the $340,000 Welch raised for his campaign account in the second half of the year came from corporate or union PACs. But, as previously noted, 100 percent of his Maple PAC contributions came from such groups.

Sanders is the exception to the rule.

He is the only member of Vermont's congressional delegation who refuses to accept money from corporate PACs. And though he does take contributions from union PACs and other organizations aligned with his philosophy, they donate a very small portion of the money he collects.

Sanders' Progressive Voters for America, for instance, raised just $11,500 of its $331,000 haul from such groups in the second half of 2013 — a scant 3.5 percent of his total. PACs contributing to PVA included those representing transit workers, credit unions, communications workers, air traffic controllers and sheet metal workers.

So why is Sanders directing most of his political cash toward a leadership PAC? 

Sanders was not available for comment Monday, but longtime aide Phil Fiermonte told Seven Days in July that Sanders intended to donate money he raised through PVA to federal, state and local candidates. Fiermonte suggested that it was "possible that PVA could support primary challenges to incumbent members."

Indeed, Sanders sent some of the $102,000 PVA raised last year to his colleagues' reelection campaigns, as well as to two congressional hopefuls: South Carolina's Gloria Bromell Tinubu and South Dakota's Rick Weiland.

But he also appeared to use his leadership PAC to finance his own political efforts, a common practice in Congress — using it to pay fundraiser Benjamin Eisenberg, bankroll a campaign-style swing to four southern states in October and pay $15,000 worth of dues to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Leahy also routinely employs Green Mountain PAC to finance his own campaign operations — using it to compensate political aide Carolyn Dwyer and chief of staff J.P. Dowd — as well as to support his colleagues' reelection campaigns. 

While Welch said he established Maple PAC "primarily" to support congressional candidates, so far he hasn't directed any of the $44,000 the fund has collected to other politicians. Among the recipients of the fund's $3,000 worth of disbursements were Welch fundraiser Bruce Kieloch and compliance consultant Meredith Woodside.

Whether Sanders' burst of fundraising has anything to do with his potential presidential ambitions is unclear. But in previous two-year cycles in which he hasn't faced an imminent reelection fight, the Vermont independent has never raised so much in a six-month period. During the equivalent time period in his last six-year term, Sanders raised less than $10,000 in the final six months of 2007.

Dsiclosure: Paul Heintz worked as Peter Welch's communications director from November 2008 to March 2011.

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