Part 1: A look at the super and corporate PACs that elected Rep. Byron Donalds
120 days Byron Donalds has been in office
May 3, 2021 by David Silverberg
“The PACs didn’t get me elected,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) said during a March 30 interview at Alfie Oakes’ Seed to Table market.
The remark invites much closer examination because Donalds was perhaps the candidate most dependent on political action committees (PACs) ever to run for federal office in Southwest Florida. And while PACs may not have cast votes themselves, their money made all the difference. This was certainly true in his primary race when he faced eight other Republican candidates, some of them better known and far better funded.
Further, an examination of Donalds’ PAC backing in the 2020 election cycle illuminates the positions he has taken on various issues and his priorities as a member of Congress.
A quick PAC primer
Anyone can form or join a PAC. At their most fundamental level, PACs are simply organizations of people who pool their money to support and contribute to candidates and political causes. However, they are independent of individual candidates’ election committees or political party organizations. They register with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and record their donations and expenditures according to its procedures.
PAC spending is legal and proper when done within the framework of federal campaign finance regulations. It is done under the oversight of the FEC and the filings are publicly available. This is a result of reforms enacted after the 1974 Watergate affair, when large sums of unknown provenance were used for illicit reasons.
PACs are not allowed to demand or request specific actions by a public official in return for specific contributions. Their spending is broader and more generalized.
The PAC contributions to Donalds’ campaign can be broken down into different categories: super PACs; corporate PACs from individual companies; trade and professional association PACs; leadership and candidate PACs from sitting officials or other candidates; party PACs from the Republican Party; and ideological PACs promoting a political position, in this case conservatism in general.
This article will examine super PAC and corporate PAC spending to elect Donalds. A future article will look at leadership, trade and ideological PACs.
The PAC spending reported in this article was based on public information and, to the best of this author’s ability to determine, was legal and compliant with existing law. No criminality or impropriety is alleged or implied.
Ever since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC decision, “super PACs” have been allowed to spend unlimited funds on issues rather than for the benefit of specific candidates. These super PACs are not allowed to coordinate their activities with candidate campaigns and must make their decisions independently.
That said, super PAC spending can considerably benefit a candidate and that was certainly the case with Donalds.
According to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks political spending based on FEC filings, Donalds benefitted from $1,153,991 in independent spending by conservative, ideologically-driven super PACs.
Of these the two most active were Club for Growth Action, which spent $1,383,647, and Americans for Prosperity Action, which spent $203,613 to indirectly benefit Donalds.
Both super PACs focused on conservative issues that benefited Donalds, particularly in the hotly contested primary contest when he was up against much better funded candidates.
While these were the most generous super PACs, some others worthy of note are the National Rifle Association ($4,451) and the NRA Institute for Legislative Action ($1,184), which advocate against gun restrictions, and the National Right to Life Victory Fund ($3,396), which opposes abortions.
Other super PACs indirectly contributing to Donalds’ election were, in descending order of contribution:
- Honesty America Inc: $138,131
- Concerned Conservatives Inc: $85,706
- Protect Freedom PAC: $80,187
- Trusted Conservatives: $46,138
- American Liberty Fund: $37,553
- New Journey PAC: $32,230
- Conservative Outsider PAC: $17,769
- Club for Growth: $9,272
- Guardian Fund: $6,941
- Friends of Mia Love PAC: $6,045
- FreedomWorks for America: $2,500
- House Freedom Fund: $1,486
According to the FEC, the Donalds campaign received donations from 39 corporate PACs directly to the campaign and so were subject to campaign finance limits.
Corporate PAC contributions are usually made with the intention of advancing business agendas, shaping regulation or legislation and ensuring access to a lawmaker.
These PACs can be grouped into subcategories.
The American Crystal Sugar Company PAC and the United States Sugar Corporation Employee Stock Ownership Plan PAC each contributed $5,000 to Donalds’ 2020 campaign.
Florida sugar companies have in the past worked to ensure continuation of sugar subsidies, ward off foreign competition and oppose labor and environmental regulations that could complicate or add cost to their operations.
Exxon Mobil Corporation (Exxonmobil PAC) and Marathon Petroleum Corporation Employees PAC (MPAC) contributed $1,500 and $2,500 respectively to the Donalds campaign.
With potential reserves of oil in Florida beneath both public and private land as well as possible deposits offshore, Florida has long been of interest to oil companies. Environmental groups and organizations have opposed this exploration and exploitation because of its potential harm to the natural environment of Southwest Florida, especially the Everglades.
There is new legislation in the current Congress to prevent offshore oil exploration. While Donalds’ predecessor, Francis Rooney, was a leader in opposition to offshore oil exploitation, Donalds has followed the lead of Rep. Kathy Castor (D-14-Fla.) and Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-16-Fla.) who introduced the Florida Coastal Protection Act (House Resolution 2836) on April 26. (For past coverage of this issue see: “Trump, Biden and Florida’s Gulf shore oil war.”)
The Donalds campaign received $1,000 from The Mosaic Company PAC (MOSAICPAC).
The Mosaic Company is a phosphate and potash mining company headquartered in Tampa. Its mining products are used extensively for agricultural fertilizer throughout Florida and the world.
This April, headlines appeared in Southwest Florida warning that a retention pond or “stack” full of contaminated water from mining operations was threatening to burst and flood the surrounding area at Piney Point, Fla., near Tampa. Engineers began frantically pumping millions of gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay. This raised fears that pollution would lead to a severe red tide this summer and drift down to the Paradise Coast.
The stack was created by Mosaic’s mining operations, which had ceased at Piney Point in 2001, leaving the wastewater to sit in the stack.
While this year’s crisis has been declared over and the leaking stopped, it was not the first such leak from a Mosaic mining operation. The company successfully contained a 2019 leak but a 2016 sinkhole from mining operations threatened to pollute the Florida underground aquifer on which the population of the state depends for its drinking and irrigation water.
Reynolds American Inc. PAC (RAI PAC) contributed $1,000 to the Donalds campaign. Reynolds American is an indirect, wholly owned subsidiary of British American Tobacco PLC and produces the Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, Newport, Camel, and American Spirit cigarette brands as well as Grizzly chewing tobacco, Vuse vapor products and Velo nicotine lozenges and pouches. Along with other tobacco products, its mentholated tobacco products may soon be banned by the federal government.
Other notable corporate PACs
Koch Industries, Inc. PAC (KOCHPAC) contributed $5,000 to the Donalds campaign during the 2020 election cycle. These are the companies owned by the well-known Koch brothers, Charles and David (who died in 2019). They funded a wide variety of extreme ideological causes and organizations.
(Two excellent books that delve into the Koch brothers’ activities and past are Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty by Daniel Schulman and Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.)
Bloomin’ Brands, Inc. PAC contributed $5,000 to the Donalds campaign. Bloomin’ Brands is the company behind such well-known Southwest Florida restaurant franchises as Bonefish Grill, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and Outback Steakhouse.
Publix Super Markets, Inc. Associates PAC, contributed $5,000, the most it gave to any Southwest Florida candidate. The Publix political role in Florida was covered in depth in The Paradise Progressive article “Publix: Where politics bring no pleasure.”
Other corporate PACs were, in descending order of contribution (the FEC lists some twice):
- National Association Of Realtors PAC: $10,000
- National Automobile Dealers Association PAC: $10,000
- Nextera Energy, Inc. PAC: $8,000
- American Bankers Association Pac (BANKPAC): $5,000
- Deloitte PAC: $5,000
- Nextera Energy, Inc. PAC: $5,000
- The Geo Group, Inc. PAC: $5,000
- AFLAC PAC: $3,500
- LPL Financial LLC PAC: $3,500
- AT&T Inc./Warnermedia LLC Federal PAC (AT&T/WARNERMEDIA FEDERAL PAC): $3,000
- KPMG Partners/Principals And Employees PAC: $3,000
- AFLAC PAC (AFLAC PAC): $2,500
- American Bankers Association PAC (BANKPAC): $2,500
- Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. PAC (ABC PAC): $2,500
- Chubb Group Holdings Inc. PAC: $2,500
- Comcast Corporation & NBCUniversal PAC – Federal: $2,500
- JM Family Enterprises, Inc. PAC: $2,500
- Regions Financial Corporation PAC: $2,500
- United Parcel Service Inc. PAC: $2,500
- Wells Fargo and Company Employee PAC (also known as Wells Fargo Employee PAC): $2,500
- PriceWaterhouseCoopers PAC I: $2,000
- Protective Life Corporation Federal PAC (PROTECTPAC): $2,000
- The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association Action Committee for Rural Electrification: $1,500
- Akerman LLP PAC: $1,000
- Discover Financial Services PAC: $1,000
- Grayrobinson P.A. PAC: $1,000
- Jackson Holdings LLC and Jackson National Life Insurance Company Separate Segregated Fund: $1,000
- Liberty Mutual Insurance Company – PAC: $1,000
- Marsh & McLennan Companies, Inc. PAC (MMCPAC): $1,000
- Protective Life Corporation Federal PAC (PROTECTPAC): $1,000
- Rock Holdings Inc. PAC: $1,000
- Teco Energy Inc. Employees’ PAC: $1,000
Analysis: Chicken or egg?
As is clear from the listings above, PACs played a major role in Byron Donalds’ election.
Donalds is an intensely ideological representative of the extreme right, so it’s hard to say to what degree PAC contributions shaped his public positions or to what degree his public positions attracted PAC contributions. It’s a chicken-and-egg question.
What is clear is that super PAC spending made him competitive in the primary but once he was the nominee and widely regarded as likely to win the general election, the corporate PACs jumped in, trying to ride on a candidate bandwagon they regarded as a sure bet. At that point their contributions were less important for fueling his campaign and more important for ensuring that their lobbyists would have a foot in the door of his congressional office—and that he would listen.
Certainly, Donalds’ disinterest in the 19th District’s local water and environmental issues, which was quite striking during his campaign, fit in well with the corporate interests of the sugar, mining and oil PACs, whose companies have caused pollution, destruction and despoliation in the past and may do so again in the future. That said, his cosponsorship of HR 2836 is commendable.
Nonetheless, while Donalds has taken some cosmetic actions toward showing attention to vital, local environmental issues, they have mostly been superficial and shallow, chiefly photo ops and grip-and-grins. As importantly, he has vocally and consistently opposed the relief bills that would speed distribution of vaccines to the people of the 19th District, provide them with financial relief amidst pandemic-related hardships, stimulate the local economy and improve the area’s infrastructure.
To date, the corporate and super PACs have largely gotten what they paid for: a member of Congress who has loudly championed commercial and ideological interests in pursuit of his own ambitions while overlooking local environmental and public health concerns—all while claiming his PAC donors have no effect on his thoughts, statements or actions.
554 days (1 year, 6 months, 5 days) to Election Day.
To come: The trade, leadership and ideological PACs behind Rep. Byron Donalds
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Liberty lives in light
© 2021 by David Silverberg