Rep. Welch pledges to reject corporate PAC money, but past business gifts will jump-start his Senate campaign
Rep. Peter Welch has pledged not to accept donations from corporate political action committees (PACs) in his run for U.S. Senate, but he starts his campaign with a significant funding advantage built in part on past corporate donations that he is now swearing off.
“We aren’t accepting any corporate PAC money. We want Vermonters and people across the country to know we are fighting for them,” Welch tweeted on Sunday from his Senate campaign’s Twitter account.
That stance is at odds with the Vermont Democrat’s past practice in his eight runs for the U.S. House. Just this year, Welch has received thousands of dollars of donations to his House campaign account from corporate PACs, including gifts received as recently as Sept. 30.
Donors to Welch include PACs representing well-known businesses like The Home Depot, Toyota, Ford, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Google and Best Buy. Each of those corporations gave Welch at least $1,000 this year.
In total, Welch has over $2 million in his House account, thanks to the donations of individuals and corporations such as Liberty Mutual Insurance, Land O’ Lakes, Dairy Farmers of America and General Electric. And his campaign confirmed to VPR that it intends to transfer funds in his House campaign to his newly-opened Senate account.
Asked to clarify the campaign's policy on corporate PAC money, a Welch spokesperson said the ban on corporate donations will only apply to the Senate campaign, and won’t be applied retroactively to the congressman’s existing war chest.
An expanding Senate race
Welch is the highest profile candidate to file for Senate so far, but he’s not alone. Several independents and one Democrat have also filed with the Federal Election Commission.
That includes Brock Pierce, a former child actor known for his role in the Mighty Ducks movies in the early 1990s. A self-proclaimed “futurist,” Pierce has since invested heavily in cryptocurrency and ran an independent campaign for president last year.
According to Forbes, Pierce had at least $700 million in cryptocurrency as of 2018.
Welch also has company in the Democratic primary. Niki Thran, an emergency room physician at Gifford Medical Center, intends to run as a Democrat. The political newcomer, who lives in Warren, says she's particularly passionate about health care reform, gun control and environmental issues.
"I can offer the fact that I'm not a lifelong politician, that I bring real world experience to the job. I'm a big problem-solver,” Thran said.
Thran's campaign has raised over $13,000 so far, a fact she was surprised to hear in an interview with VPR.
“Oh, that’s good. I didn’t realize I had raised that much,” Thran said. She intends to formally launch her campaign in January.
Surveying the field
Some more familiar names in Vermont politics are considering runs for the House seat that Welch is vacating, including Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, Chittenden County Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint.
None have run for federal office before. According to filings with the Secretary of State’s office, each had several thousand dollars left over in their state campaign accounts as of July 1. However, those funds can’t be transferred directly to a federal race, per FEC rules.
Still, those state filings reveal the potential candidates’ recent fundraising track record, and they show that Gray has experience raising and spending far more than the others. Unlike Balint and Ram Hinsdale, who ran for local legislative seats, Gray ran for a statewide office last year, raising over $400,000.
Meanwhile, Ram Hinsdale raised over $85,000, and Balint raised over $10,000. Gray also continued fundraising after the election, bringing in another $50,000 after she won office. She’s also continued to employ a political staffer outside of the election cycle, an unusual move in Vermont state politics.
Leahy’s legacy funds
Prospective candidates aren’t the only ones with fundraising decisions to make in the coming months. Sen. Patrick Leahy will need to decide what to do with the $2 million sitting in his campaign account.
There are a few ways retiring senators usually use leftover campaign funds, according to Paul Seamus Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, a national good government advocacy organization.
Most politicians give the funds to charity, a national political party or to other active campaigns, he said. They can also refund donors or convert their traditional campaign committee into a PAC, which could continue raising and spending money in support of other candidates.
The one thing Leahy cannot do is give the money to himself, either directly or indirectly. Ryan gave the example of a retiring senator giving leftover campaign money to a department of a university.
“It would then be impermissible for that retiring senator to then go to work for the university and get a paycheck made up of funds that were transferred to the university,” Ryan says.
Leahy's campaign manager says the senator will decide how to use his leftover campaign funds at the end of his time in the Senate.