About two dozen people attended a $1,000-a-plate breakfast in January for a U.S. Senate candidate from Kentucky. They gathered at the Washington lobbying firm Podesta Group, founded by Democratic power brokers Tony and John Podesta, the latter of whom advises President Barack Obama on climate change policy, including last week's proposed greenhouse gas restrictions.
The Podesta lobbyists hosting the event represent scores of clients, from pharmaceutical giant Amgen to Chinese phone manufacturer ZTE Corp. Several of them also have represented the Better World Fund, which works with the United Nations to replace coal-fired power with renewable energy, such as wind and solar. Media mogul Ted Turner, who said coal companies "needed a good ass-kicking," established the fund.
The candidate was Mitch McConnell, a five-term incumbent Republican whose campaign routinely blasts his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, for taking "anti-coal" donations, such as $1,000 she received from the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Grimes "is being funded by liberals nationwide who know that a vote for her is a vote to ensure further implementation of their anti-coal agenda in the U.S. Senate," McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore said in a news release last week.
But campaign-finance experts say McConnell has no room to judge. Over the last six years, his coast-to-coast fundraising machine has absorbed many tens of thousands of dollars from corporate political action committees (PACs), business executives and lobbyists who aren't exactly rooting for coal's success, from natural gas producers to nuclear and renewable energy supporters.
For example, Dallas entrepreneur David Litman, who opposes new coal plants as an activist with the Nature Conservancy and Texas Business for Clean Air, has given McConnell $2,000.
"Clean air is important to us," Litman said in a 2008 interview posted on YouTube. "Our ability for our businesses to grow can be limited by the fact that our air is dirty. There is no inherent conflict between clean air and good business."
McConnell's contributor list reveals an untidy political reality, the experts said. Incumbents seize on select donations to attack their challengers, but they seldom apply an ideological purity test to their own fundraising. And major donors — the kind who spend their mornings at $1,000-a-plate breakfasts — can be a lot less partisan than the typical voter. For all involved, this is simply business.
"For McConnell, it's all about power, not principle. He wants as much money as he can get so he can accumulate and hang onto power. Who provides that money is not of much interest to him," said David Donnelly, who studies political donations as executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund in Washington.
Donnelly's group pushes for limits on campaign donations, which puts it at loggerheads with McConnell, who holds the view that political donations are a form of free speech, protected by the First Amendment.
Donnelly noted that McConnell has taken checks from executives or PACs of ExxonMobil, Chesapeake Energy, Andarko, Devon Energy, Southwestern Energy and other leading natural gas producers. In addition, the American Gas Association held a $1,000-per-person dinner for McConnell in 2011. The gas industry gave millions of dollars to political campaigns as Congress debated whether to regulate the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, also known as "fracking," used to drill deep into the earth. So far, Congress has decided to leave fracking to the states, and gas has boomed.
"McConnell is a huge recipient of natural gas money," Donnelly said. "You would think this would be a bigger issue for the Democrats in Kentucky with all of his talk about the war on coal, given that natural gas is cheaper and more popular and it's quickly reducing demand for coal. He's really in a glass house throwing stones when he talks about anyone else's 'anti-coal' money."
The Herald-Leader analyzed $21.5 million that McConnell has raised since 2009 for the Nov. 4 Senate election and $7.4 million that Grimes has raised since July. The information was current as of March 30, the most recent date for which the Federal Election Commission could provide raw data, and it included all contributions of $200 or greater for which donors were fully identified.
One trait both candidates share: They are mostly funded by people outside Kentucky. Only 13 percent of McConnell's money ($2.85 million) comes from the state he represents in the Senate. Grimes scores higher at 25 percent ($1.5 million).
"The problem with all of this outside money is that a lot of it comes from people who aren't necessarily concerned about Kentucky's best interests," said Donald Gross, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky who has published two books on campaign finance.
"These donors invest in the candidates who they think will look out for them, who will give them access," Gross said. "And if you look at the dollar amounts accumulating in this Senate race, you can see we're about to be inundated with television ads, largely paid for by people outside of Kentucky, that will provide us with little relevant or accurate information about the candidates or the issues. It doesn't do us any good as Kentucky voters, unfortunately."
In a prepared statement, the Grimes campaign said it's proud of its donors from all 120 Kentucky counties and all 50 states.
"Our 45,000 grassroots supporters are tired of Mitch McConnell's 30 years of stale excuses and failed leadership, and they are ready for an independent, common-sense problem solver in the U.S. Senate who puts people above partisanship," said Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton.
McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore last week declined to discuss her candidate's fundraising and did not respond to an email containing written questions.
Working both sides
McConnell's greatest source of funding is the nation's capital. He has taken $5.3 million, one-fourth of his total, from the Washington metro area, including the District of Columbia and surrounding Virginia and Maryland. This donor pool is dominated by Capitol Hill lobbyists and industry PACs with financial interests in how McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, acts on tax breaks, government spending and a myriad of laws.
Many of McConnell's D.C. donors — Amazon, United HealthCare, Time Warner, the Federation of American Hospitals and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, to name a few — are bipartisan. They open their checkbooks for him and other Republicans as well as for Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Democratic congressional committees.
Similarly, Washington lobbying firms like Podesta Group, where McConnell held his $1,000-a-plate breakfast in January, employ Democrats and Republicans to work both sides of the aisle for clients, and so they give hugely to both parties. Two months before it welcomed McConnell, Podesta Group joined with the Teamsters union and Planned Parenthood on a fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"We're a little shy of 50/50 among our senior people right now, in favor of Democrats," said Missi Tessier, one of the Podesta lobbyists who hosted McConnell's fundraiser and gave him money.
The same bipartisanship exists in the New York metro area, including New Jersey and Connecticut, McConnell's second-largest funding source at 13 percent, or $2.87 million. His top New York donors — PACs and executives from Wall Street banks and Fortune 500 corporations — often slather donations over key congressional members from both parties. They include Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, who received a collective $80 billion in the 2008 federal bank bailout that McConnell at the time hailed as "one of the finest moments in the history of the Senate."
McConnell publicly criticizes Reid for being liberal and last week attacked Grimes for attending a fundraiser with Reid. "A vote for Alison Lundergan Grimes is a vote for Harry Reid," the McConnell campaign said in a news release. Yet McConnell and Reid share a legion of deep-pocketed supporters.
"There is a permanent political donor class based around Washington and New York, and they give to whomever holds power," said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington nonprofit that advocates for government transparency.
"These donors have large, complex interests, and they like to have friends at the top of both political parties so they can get access," Allison said. "It's funny, but the only thing that seems to get through Congress anymore is the sort of corporate welfare — federal subsidies, tax breaks, looser regulations — that these donors want, and it's because they're paying the freight for the campaigns."
For example, defense contractor Northrop Grumman aggressively lobbied in 2012 to protect its $2.5 billion, five-year deal for the Global Hawk drone. Looking to cut spending and concerned that the drone was "not operationally effective," the Pentagon planned to mothball it. But in a defense authorization bill, Congress, including McConnell, closed ranks to revive the project over the Defense Department's objections.
Northrop Grumman's PAC is one of Washington's largest campaign donors, having given $2.9 million in the last two years, according to Federal Election Commission data. Among individual members of Congress in that period, Northrop Grumman has handed $553,500 to Democrats and $748,500 to Republicans. McConnell reports $7,500 in PAC money from the company for this election.
Grimes' donations are more diffuse than McConnell's.
After Kentucky, her biggest funding pools are in Massachusetts (at 18 percent, or $1.34 million), California (at 18 percent, or $1.33 million), the Washington metro area (at 13 percent, or $932,068) and the New York metro area (at 10 percent, or $721,434).
Massachusetts' No. 2 ranking is something of a glitch. Most of that money is attributed by the FEC to ActBlue, a firm outside Boston that raises money online for Democratic candidates. Those donations — and there are thousands — commonly range from $15 to $250 and originate around the country, earmarked by the donors for Grimes.
California's No. 3 ranking is no glitch. It's a vast, affluent, politically liberal state, and Grimes has made successful fundraising trips to get money both from Silicon Valley technologists and Hollywood celebrities, such as DreamWorks Animation chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, actors Tom Hanks and Ben Affleck, singer Barbara Streisand and director Steven Spielberg.
"Alison is the antidote to McConnell and all he represents. She can win, and she will win if she gets the support she needs," Katzenberg told his wealthy friends in an email last year before one of Grimes' Los Angeles events.
McConnell's campaign mocks Grimes for her California connections, saying it proves that she's out of touch.
"You couldn't find a collection of people anywhere in America who are more hostile to Kentucky values and conservative principles than the ones on Alison Lundergan Grimes' major donor list," Moore, McConnell's spokeswoman, said last fall.
However, McConnell has raised more California money ($1.4 million) than Grimes. His Golden State donors lean more toward businessmen — bankers, real-estate developers, corporate chieftains and their PACs — than celebrities. His entertainment-related donations tend to come from studio executives rather than actors and directors, although the Directors Guild of America did give him $2,500 in September 2012.
At the time, the Directors Guild was lobbying Congress to renew a movie-making tax deduction estimated to cost the Treasury $430 million over the next two years. Although deficit hawks objected, the tax break made it into the "fiscal cliff" deal that McConnell hashed out with Vice President Joe Biden in December 2012.