Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Nearly all big campaign donations come from tiny fraction of population

Rep. Joe Baca, D-CA, is running for re-election against a fellow Democrat, California State Senator Gloria Negrete McLeod.
Rep. Joe Baca, D-CA, is running for re-election against a fellow Democrat, California State Senator Gloria Negrete McLeod.
Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

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There’s been a lot of talk about political action committees and the jaw-dropping amounts they’re spending on campaigns.  If you sift through candidates’ filings with the Federal Election Commission, you'll discover that just a tiny fraction of contributions come from friends and neighbors within Congressional districts.

Because of California’s new election rules, two Democrats are running against each other in Corona.  Incumbent Congressman Joe Baca is being challenged by State Senator Gloria Negrete McLeod. The campaigns combined have raised just over a million dollars.

It’s not a huge amount of money, compared to other contests. But the donor base reflects a common pattern in Congressional races.

For Baca, 60 percent of his money comes from political action committees — mostly farming, telecom, and labor groups.  McLeod gets less than 20 percent of her money from PACs, mostly from Emily’s List and other organizations that support women candidates.

But buried in that pot of money for both candidates are thousands of dollars from lobbyists and consultants — donations described as “individual contributions.”

Sheila Krumholz is executive director of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. She says lobbyists have "long played the money-in-politics game." She calls it a cost of doing business.

Changes in federal law have made it more difficult for lobbyists to pick up the tab for a meal, but it does not restrict their ability to give money to a candidate's campaign.  Krumholz says many lawyers should be lumped into this category — particularly those with a D.C. address, since they serve as de facto lobbyists. 

Krumholz calls them "Washington animals." She says they know how to work the system, how to navigate the halls of Congress, "and they know the power of personal connection, how to use their contacts."

One way to build up that rolodex is to work both sides of the aisle. Lobbyist David Turch, for example, wrote a check to Joe Baca for $1,000.  But he’s also given to GOP Congressional candidate John Tavaglione in Riverside.  Over the years, Turch has contributed to Californians from both parties: Democrats Dianne Feinstein, Lucille Roybal-Allard, and Janice Hahn; as well as Republicans David Dreier, Darrell Issa, and Elton Gallegly.

Baca’s opponent, McLeod, has lobbyist money as well. All four partners of the Sacramento firm Lang, Hansen, O’Malley, and Miller each kicked in $2,000 to her campaign. The firm represents clients as varied as Facebook, Walmart, Hollywood Park, and the City of San Clemente.

Melanie Sloan of the D.C.-based watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics says when lobbyists contribute, it’s not exactly quid pro quo.  It’s about building a relationship and access. Wanting to give back, she says, is human nature: "You’re likely to help people who’ve helped you."

Sloan says if a lobbyist has helped retain your seat and bundled lots of contributions, "you as a member of Congress, because you’re a human being, are just going to feel grateful and more likely to at least give that person a hearing."

Baca and McLeod each raised more than $15,000 from lobbyists and consultants — but from two different cities.  Most of Baca’s come from Washington, where he’s served in Congress since 1999. Most of McLeod’s are from Sacramento, where she’s been in the state legislature since 2000.

Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a non-profit that enforces campaign finance laws, says the shocking thing isn't that lobbyists and consultants give, "It’s that if you really look at the number of people generally who give $200 or more in federal elections, it’s .26% — far less than even one percent of the population."

Meaning most large campaign contributions come from a small pool of givers. And now, McGehee says, the Citizens United decision has made it possible for special interests to do more than just make a $2,500 individual contribution to a candidate: they can give an unlimited amount to a political action committee. 

Joe Baca's FEC information can be found here:

Gloria Negrete McLeod's FEC information can be found here: