Candidates in the 25th and 27th District congressional races collectively boosted their campaign war chests with $1.5 million in special interest money. That’s approximately 37 percent of the nearly $4 million local Democratic and Republican candidates raised in 2018 race.
The 25th District includes Rochester and most of its suburbs. Situated entirely in Monroe County, it covers all but a sliver of the county’s western edge. The 27th District covers all of Genesee, Orleans, Wyoming and Livingston counties and parts of Erie and Niagara counties as well as the slice of Monroe County not included in the 25th District.
The unofficial winners in each district—Republican Christopher Collins in the 27th and Democrat Joe Morelle in the 25th—accounted for most of the political action committee donations, with each pulling in nearly $750,000 from special interest donors.
Morelle raised the most money, drawing $1.6 million from all sources. Next highest was Collins with some $1.3 million. Republican Jim Maxwell M.D., Morelle’s opponent in the 25th District raised roughly $948,000. In the 27th District, Democrat Nate McMurray raised some $900,000.
Unlike the other three major party candidates, Collins, the sole incumbent and a multi-millionaire with a $66 million net worth, benefitted from mega-donor dollars. His campaign coffers were swelled by a $206,000 infusion from GOP donors in high-dollar private fundraisers.
Last spring, Collins, a two-term incumbent, was widely quoted by national media as saying that he had no choice but to vote for a tax cut widely criticized by Democrats as a giveaway to wealthy individuals and corporations because “my donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’ Every special interest is out there in force.”
Federal Election Commission records since Jan. 1, 2017, list Collins’ $206,603 cash infusion under a line called “transfers from other authorized committees.” The other three candidates list zero dollars in such transfers; they report only money taken in from individual, PAC and party-committee contributions.
Much of the cash the Collins campaign reported on the transfers from other authorized committees line came from the Collins Victory Fund, a so-called joint fundraising committee.
Contributors to such committees can bypass the limits capping other individual and corporate political donations—$2,700 to a candidate, $2,000 to a campaign committee and $5,000 to a PAC in any given cycle—legally donating as much as $500,000.
The Collins Victory Fund consists of the Collins campaign committee and his PAC. A 2017 luncheon hosted by Vice President Mike Pence as a Collins Victory Fund fundraiser invited donors to contribute $20,000 to buy an eight-seat table. Anyone contributing $10,000 or more got a chance to meet and have a photograph taken with Pence.
According to OpenSecrets.org, a website that tracks U.S. political dollars run by the nonpartisan and nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, contributions to the Collins Victory Fund in the 2018 election cycle totaled some $400,000. Major contributions included $25,000 from Flaum Management Inc., $25,000 from Uniland Development, $6,700 from the Buffalo law firm Hodgson, Russ LLP and $5,400 from Pike Co.
Such committees are unique neither to Collins nor to the GOP. OpenSecrets.org shows the Nancy Pelosi Victory Fund for Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to have pulled in $3.3 million in the 2018 cycle and the Elizabeth Warren Action Fund, in support of the Massachusetts Democrat, to have netted $4.9 million.
Headed by House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Team Ryan’s $63.6 million take and the Trump Make America Great Committee’s $55.4 million total, GOP joint fundraising committees account for seven of the 10 top-dollar joint committees on the OpenSecrets.org list.
Aside from joint fundraising contributions, Collins pulled in the most money from PACs by a nose, collecting $713,000, making money donated by PACs well over half of the $1.3 million total he raised. Much of it came from corporate PACs.
Top industry contributors to Collins ranged widely, including pharmaceuticals, gasoline retailers, beer wholesalers, nuclear energy producers and other power companies, orthodontists and telecommunications PACS as well as many others, FEC data show. Individual companies whose PACS donated to Collins included General Electric Co., MVP Health Care and Rite Aid Corp. The Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball kicked in a $1,000 contribution
Morelle, a first-time Congressional candidate but long well known in state Democratic politics, was not outdone. He collected $702,000 in PAC cash,which also accounted for more than half of the approximately $1.6 million his campaign raised.
PAC donations to Morelle’s campaign tilted more toward union and fellow Democrats’ committees than to corporations. Union contributors included PACs organized by boilermakers, bricklayers, postal workers, machinists, teachers and aerospace workers unions. PACs organized by Democratic office holders, including Louise Slaughter, liberally sprinkle Morelle’s list of PAC donations.
Still, Morelle pulled in a few sizable corporate PAC dollars, including $10,000 from Harris Corp.’s PAC, $2,000 from a Walmart PAC, and $2,500 from United Health Group’s PAC.
Collins’s challenger, McMurray, pulled in a relatively modest $72,715 in PAC cash, only 8 percent of the roughly $900,000 his campaign raised. Most of his PAC money came from Democratic organizations. A smaller sampling came from unions.
Individual donors accounted for a significantly greater slice of the Democratic candidates’ campaign war chests, roughly twice what the GOP candidates pulled in from similar donors. Some $825,000 in individual contributions accounted for the bulk of McMurray’s campaign cash, most of it in small-dollar donations late in the campaign after Collins was criminally charged with insider trading.
Morelle pulled in $893,000 from individual contributors. Individual donors contributed $435,000 to Maxwell’s campaign. Collins saw the least money from individual contributors. His campaign pulled in a total of $393,000 in such donations.
Maxwell stands out for having taken the least cash from PACs. A neurosurgeon and political novice who loaned his own campaign nearly half a million dollars, Maxwell collected $26,000 from PACs—a mere 2.8 percent of his $948,683 in total campaign cash. Most of his PAC contributions were from physician organizations. PACs formed by two local firms, Nixon Peabody and Constellation Brands, contributed to Maxwell’s campaign, donating $1,000 each.
Maxwell also stands out as the only candidate who, in addition to losing the election, lost money. The $480,000 he lent his own campaign is listed as the campaign’s sole outstanding debt. FEC records show $311,377 left in the campaign’s coffers, leaving Maxwell with $168,000 of the loan still outstanding.
Morelle begins his freshman term in the House of Representatives with $233,000 left in his war chest. He now is in Washington, D.C., to fill out the balance of Slaughter’s term before beginning his own two-year stint Jan. 1. Collins returns to Congress after finishing the race with $624,212 left in his campaign coffer.
Democrat Nathan McMurray spent all but $1,900 of the roughly $900,000 he raised to finance his bid for the 27th District seat.
Hotly contested races
Whether money was a deciding factor in the 25th and 27th District congressional races is not clear. Both were hotly contested and in each party registration arguably played the biggest role. The 25th District seat had been held for some 30 years by Democrat Louise Slaughter, who unexpectedly died in office in March. For most of that time, Slaughter easily brushed aside GOP challengers in a district with more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Still, in 2016, Republican Mark Asini came closer than previous challengers, capturing 43 percent of some 325,000 votes cast, a showing that some saw as possibly hopeful for a future GOP challenger. In the end, Morelle captured 57.5 percent of the vote to Maxwell’s 40.6 percent.
In the 27th District, Collins, was initially considered a shoo-in. As first in the House of Representatives to line up behind Donald Trump and a two-term incumbent, he was popular in a district where 59.7 percent favored Trump in 2016. In that year, Collins himself outpaced Trump, winning with 67.2 percent of the vote. In addition to facing a well-known Republican in a deeply red district, McMurray, town supervisor of Grand Island, a Buffalo suburb, was not well known in most of the far-flung district.
But in early August, Collins was indicted on an insider trading charge, creating an opening for McMurray.
Collins initially said he would withdraw from the race but reneged and resumed active campaigning in late September. The Republican won, but by a slim margin, based on unofficial results—fewer than 3,000 votes in a race in which 270,000 voted. Collins has declared himself the winner. McMurray has so far not conceded.
Unsurprisingly in light of Collins’s initial withdrawal, PAC donors largely spurned him after his Aug. 8 indictment. FEC records show only one post-indictment PAC donation, $1,000 from the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of American Better Government Committee on Sept. 29.
Collins’s legal difficulties were a boon for McMurray’s campaign finances, which had languished until Collins’s felony indictment. Much of the money McMurray raised came in after the indictment in a tsunami of small-dollar donations, many of which were funneled through Act Blue, an organization formed to direct campaign donations to Democrats and progressives.
In the end, McMurray came closer than expected, but apparently still lost.