A heavy smoker for much of his life, former Kentucky Democratic Sen. Wendell Ford died last month at age 90 after a lengthy battle with lung cancer. Among Ford’s many distinctions: He was the longest serving Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman in the organization’s history.
So it’s with some curiosity that on Jan. 29, two days after Ford’s funeral, tobacco giant Altria’s political action committee donated $15,000 to his beloved but beleaguered DSCC. Nothing suggests the timing of Altria’s contribution to the DSCC is anything but coincidental. Altria Group Inc. spokesman David Sutton, who declined to comment on this specific donation, accurately noted that the company’s PAC has previously contributed to the DSCC—and a host of other political committees run by Democrats and Republicans alike.
The largest seller of tobacco in the United States, Altria has a policy to support politicians who understand the “legislative and regulatory issues related to Altria’s businesses,” according to its website. Its products include such brands as Marlboro, Parliament, and Black & Mild.
Altria’s transaction nevertheless stands as an example of how political committees’ hunt for financial fuel—and special interests’ willingness to provide it—is all but unyielding, even when such activity would have not long ago seemed ill-timed, even uncouth.
Today political campaigns no longer wax, then wane: They are effectively permanent and ever-present.
Just ask Florida Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch.
An outspoken campaign finance reform advocate, Deutch last month challenged his congressional colleagues to join him in abstaining from political fundraising for the month of February.
He reasoned that February is the year’s shortest month, the next general election is 21 months away, and legislators have better things to do right now than beg for campaign cash—like legislate.
Deutch had no takers.
“It shows how deeply ingrained the race for money is in Congress and that there’s an ever-increasing focus on money,” Deutch told the Center for Public Integrity. “The fundraising is dominating the process.”
These days, if political machines don’t begin spooling up for the next election immediately after one ends, “they get in real trouble,” said Lindsay Mark Lewis, who served as the Democratic National Committee’s finance director from 2005 to 2006.
“They’re under intense pressure to show in the first few months, ahead of that first [campaign finance] filing of the year, that they’re financially viable,” continued Lewis, now executive director for the Progressive Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington. “That just didn’t happen 20 years ago.”
Since 2015 began, the DSCC, which exists to elect Democrats to the U.S. Senate, has indeed been on a fundraising tear, gobbling up dollars from whomever it can in a bid to compete with its Republican counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
It’s very relevancy is at stake: The DSCC ended 2014 having lost a Senate majority and awash in red ink, reporting nearly $21.4 million in debt versus less than $1 million cash on hand, federal records show.
The NRSC also ended last year with a deficit, albeit a significantly smaller one, reporting $10 million in debt against $2.7 million cash on hand.
As part of its strategy for generating income ahead of the 2016 elections, the DSCC has conducted a series of in-person fundraisers early this year. It includes one co-hosted this month by lobbyist Jake Perry, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. Atop his laundry list of lobbying clients is Altria.
Lobbyist Heather Podesta co-hosted a big-dollar affair for the DSCC at her Washington office this month as well, according to an invitation obtained by the Sunlight Foundation. Podesta’s firm represents more than three-dozen clients, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They range from upstarts Snapchat and Fitbit to old-line energy companies Marathon Oil and Oxbow Carbon—the latter oil firm being led by William Koch, the lesser-known brother of Charles and David Koch, two of the Republican Party’s wealthiest backers. William Koch, both personally and through his companies, primarily contributes to conservative political interests, but has also supported some liberal ones.
The DSCC has also blasted supporters with incessant fundraising emails, as has become the norm for most political committees. Vice President Joe Biden attempted to gin up dollars by lamenting how the “GOP has already gone after Social Security, a woman’s right to choose and President Obama’s immigration plan.” Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the DSCC’s current chairman, sent a sobering appeal evoking the Koch brothers and touting a “ground-up Democratic electoral movement.”
Even Jon Stewart unwittingly factored into a DSCC solicitation after he announced he’d be quitting The Daily Show.
“Are you a huge Jon Stewart fan?” a message from the DSCC read. “Then sign our card and thank him for 16 incredible years. Let’s get 100,000 fans in the next 24 hours!”
When one “signs” the card—an email address and ZIP code is all that’s required—a DSCC donation page immediately appears.
While the DSCC may crave your money, it isn't much interested in talking about it: Officials did not respond to numerous inquiries requesting comment.