Donald Trump also made corruption in Washington a central theme of his campaign and promised to “drain the swamp” of politicians who only do the bidding of their wealthy donors.
“Love or hate Trump, I think the moment he stood on stage and said ‘Give politicians money and they’ll do whatever you want,’ was the beginning of his upward trajectory,” said John Pudner of Take Back Our Republic, a conservative group dedicated to reducing the political influence of corporations, unions and other special interest groups.
Ken Buck, a Republican Congressman from Colorado, wrote a book last year called “Drain the Swamp: How Washington Corruption is Worse Than You Think,” detailing the way powerful posts are doled out to those who raise the most campaign money, not necessarily those with the best ideas. The cycle perpetuates itself, he wrote, as members of Congress who serve on powerful committees attract more donations for their re-election campaigns.
But Republican leaders have so far not taken up the issue. And Mr. Trump routinely endorses candidates who accept large amounts of money from corporate PACs. In the recent special election in Ohio, Mr. Trump attended a rally for Mr. O’Connor’s Republican opponent, Troy Balderson, a state senator who heads an energy committee and has received more than one-third of his campaign funds from PACs, including some with ties to oil and gas companies.
Democrats in Congress also routinely give leadership posts to top fund-raisers. But an increasing number of rising stars in the party have sworn off corporate PAC money including Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
In 2016, only three of the 41 candidates on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “red-to-blue” list of the most competitive races made the no-corporate-PAC pledge, according to Adam Bozzi, communications director at End Citizen United, a group that supports an overhaul of campaign finance laws. By contrast, 32 of the 59 candidates on the list this year are shunning corporate PACs.
Candidates can do this in part because of a sharp rise in giving by small donors.
In the last midterm election year, 2014, some 1.5 million small donors contributed a total of $335 million to Democratic campaigns across the country through ActBlue, an online platform that raises money for Democrats. This time around, about 3.8 million small donors have already contributed more than $1 billion, and are on a pace to exceed $1.5 billion before Election Day in November, according to Erin Hill, ActBlue’s Executive director. The average donation is $33.85.