Out-of-district donations dominate congressional fundraising

New York congressional candidates John Faso, Claudia Tenney, and Elise Stefanik swimming in cash
New York congressional candidates John Faso, Claudia Tenney, and Elise Stefanik swimming in cash
Photo illustration by Alex Law
New York Reps. Claudia Tenney, left, Elise Stefanik, center, and John Faso.

Out-of-district donations dominate congressional fundraising

Republicans are especially reliant on wealthy individuals and PACs.
September 18, 2018

While conventional wisdom holds that Democrats are the party with the most donor enthusiasm on their side this year, New York congressional candidates from both parties are raking in high-dollar donations from outside their districts – and even out of state.

This is especially true for incumbent Republicans. Wealthy Republican donors and GOP-aligned business interests, via political action committees, are mobilizing to protect their party’s congressional majority.

In the 19th District, which covers the Catskills and parts of the mid-Hudson Valley and central New York, lawyer Antonio Delgado is challenging Rep. John Faso. Faso has been attacked for his vote on health care and his lack of transparency with voters. With the district’s ever-so-slight Republican lean, it’s seen as a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats. Delgado has raised $2.7 million to Faso’s $2.3 million.

A third of both of their total fundraising came from outside New York, and three-quarters came from outside the district. However, Delgado’s funds come much more from grass-roots donors than Faso’s.

Delgado gets just 7 percent of his funds from PACs, most of which are ideological, and just over half from donations over $1,000. Many of those come from employees at his former law firm Akin Gump, who have donated nearly $200,000 to him, by far his single biggest source of fundraising.

Over 35 percent of Faso’s funds comes from PACs – the vast majority of which are corporate PACs – and another 50 percent comes from donations of over $1,000. Faso has received $271,000 alone from donors in the financial sector, making it the industry from which he has received by far his most donations. The same holds true for his PAC donations; he has gotten $175,000 from finance, insurance, and real estate PACs, the most of any type of corporate PAC.

Faso can also count among his donors Diana and Robert Mercer, the notorious billionaire backers of Steve Bannon and Brexit, hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb, and three members of New York City’s billionaire Tisch family. In addition to those direct contributions to his campaign, his joint fundraising committee has also received sizeable donations from Loeb and Tisch, and a $100,000 donation from Thomas McInerny, CEO of Connecticut-based private equity firm Bluff Point Associates. None of them live in the 19th District.

When reached for comment, Delgado was quick to tout his fundraising stats. "The only people I am beholden to are the people right here in our district,” he said. This is ostensibly evidenced by the fact that “we have taken a pledge not to take any corporate PAC money, unlike my opponent John Faso.” He also claimed that “folks all across the district who are in a position to donate have given what they can, whether that is $10 or $100,” though his out-of-district numbers tell a different story.

Faso’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Like Faso, Claudia Tenney, the Republican incumbent in central New York’s 22nd District, derives a lot of her funds – almost $1 million – from PACs. Her opponent, Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, has gotten half a million dollars from PACs. Ellen Foster, a spokeswoman for Brindisi, said that they “haven't taken a dime of corporate PAC money,” adding, “Anthony is a strong advocate for reforming the campaign finance system to reduce the influence of corporations and outside dark money groups.” 

Brindisi gets three-quarters of his donations from within New York state – which, Foster notes, is “the best out of any Democratic challenger in New York.” In-state donors account for just 41 percent of Tenney’s donations. Her in-district numbers are even more dismal: just under 13 percent of her donations come from within NY-22, compared with 30 percent of Brindisi’s.

Over 75 percent of Tenney’s donations were of more than $1,000, compared with about 45 percent of Brindisi’s. Like Faso, she has received support from Robert Mercer. However, she also has her own group of super-rich donors, including a lobbyist at Koch Industries, Microsoft co-founder and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen, Houston Texans owner Robert McNair, the COO of Bank of America, several members of the billionaire Schwab family, and Gary Chouest, a shipping magnate and proud owner of a $45 million yacht named “My Girl.” None of them live in the district.

Tenney is widely considered the most vulnerable incumbent in New York – a Zogby poll showed Tenney down 7 to Brindisi, while a recent Siena poll showed her down 2 – and these fundraising numbers only serve to bolster that perception.

Tenney’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

In the 21st District, which covers the North Country, Republican incumbent Elise Stefanik has outraised her Democratic challenger, St. Lawrence County legislator Tedra Cobb, 4 to 1. Stefanik is fairly popular and favored to keep her seat, but you wouldn’t know it based on where her fundraising comes from.

Not only does half of Stefanik’s money come from PACs, compared with just a small fraction for Cobb, just $85,000 of Stefanik’s nearly $2 million warchest came from in-district donations: 4 percent of all her cash. That’s compared with half of Cobb’s $400,000. Some of Stefanik’s top ZIP codes include affluent neighborhoods of Westchester and Manhattan.

Half of Stefanik’s donations were over $2,000, and three quarters were over $1,000. By contrast, 60 percent of Cobb’s donations were under $1,000, and nearly half were $200 and under, making her by far the most small dollar-funded candidate in this piece.

There is an exception to the rule that Republicans rely more heavily on out-of-district donors: The 11th District, which covers all of Staten Island and a sliver of southern Brooklyn. Incumbent Republican Dan Donovan is facing Army veteran and heath care executive Max Rose. The district leans Republican; it went for Donald Trump by 10 points after voting for Obama by 5 points in 2012. Donovan won re-election with over 60 percent in 2016. However, Donovan is seen as potentially vulnerable. He faced a fierce primary challenge from former Rep. Michael Grimm, and Rose is challenging him financially thanks in large part to donations from the nearby liberal neighborhoods of New York City.

Both Rose and Donovan have raised just under $2 million, although their sources are quite different. Donovan has trounced Rose in percent of of donations coming from in-state and in-district. Just 4 percent of Rose’s donations come from the 11th, compared with 34 percent of Donovan’s.

However, the district follows the pattern of Democrats drawing more from small donors and Republicans leaning heavily on wealthy donors and corporations. Forty-two percent of Donovan’s funding comes from PACs – more than half of which are corporate PACs – and another 42 percent comes from individual donations over $1,000. Less than 3 percent of Donovan’s funds come from donations under $200. Rose, meanwhile, gets 13 percent of his funding from donations under $200 and 38 percent from donations under $1,000. Just 7 percent of his funding comes from PACs, almost all of which are ideological PACs such as the DCCC and Serve America Victory Fund, which is aimed at electing veterans.

Much of Rose’s out-of-district funding can be attributed to massive infusions from ActBlue and Swing Left, websites that allow Democrats across the country to give donations – often small ones – to candidates in competitive races. That is also the case for significant chunks of Delgado and Brindisi’s out-of-district donations. All three have received thousands of receipts from the two sites.

Donovan, meanwhile, has the support of conservative and corporate PACs, such as Koch Industries Inc. PAC, Comcast and NBC Universal PAC, and “Eye of the Tiger PAC,” an obscure fund with unknown origins. Donors who have maxed out for him, most of whom don’t live in the district, include Douglas Peterson, the CEO of S&P Global, Stephen Schwarzman, CEO and chairman of private equity firm Blackstone, and Michael Bloomberg, the 11th richest man in the world, and several of his close associates.

Out-of-state, high-dollar and PAC fundraising, while offering a fast route to financial advantage, may also risk voter backlash against the influence of special interests. So far, though, most of the Republican incumbents seem to care more about the former than the latter.

CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to remove OpenSecrets' listing of $24,000 in business PAC donations to Anthony Brindisi. Those donations came from professional organizations rather than corporate PACs. 

Andrew Solander
Andrew Solender
is a writer for Chronogram Magazine.
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