Long considered a peripheral issue in midterm elections, money in politics is emerging as a new litmus test for Democratic candidates. In ads, stump speeches and debates, scores of politicians are pledging to reject corporate PAC donations. Their ranks include a handful of Democrats, including Harris, who are widely rumored to be exploring presidential bids: New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Joining them is Vermont’s independent senator, Bernie Sanders.
In total, more than federal 170 candidates have said they’re not accepting corporate PAC donations, according to a tally by the group End Citizens United, a political action committee dedicated to campaign finance reform.
The groundswell of opposition to corporate PACs has developed quickly as Democrats aim to tap into the anti-establishment sentiment that President Donald Trump successfully harnessed in 2016. When Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., started the “NO PAC Caucus” in July 2017, only two members joined his cause — Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who’s now challenging Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, and Democratic Rep. Jared Polis, the party’s gubernatorial nominee in Colorado.
“There wasn’t a lot of interest. I was told it would unnecessarily ruffle feathers,” said Khanna. “But now it has really caught people’s imagination across the country.”
The pledge may be more symbolic than financial: In a world of dark money and super PACs, corporate donations make up only a small percentage of the total dollars flooding into the political system.
“Corporate PACs making contributions is not where the major campaign finance action is these days,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine. “If you asked me to name the top 10 things wrong with campaign finance, I’m not sure corporate PAC money would be among them.”