Incumbents Attract Late Primary Donations from Special Interest Groups

Incumbents facing primary threats are benefitting from last-minute PAC donations

May 13, 2010 -- Senators and House members facing primary threats are reaping the benefits of their incumbency with last-minute donations from special interests, records show. In some cases, the money comes from industries they oversee.

In Arkansas, where two-term Sen. Blanche Lincoln is pitted against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in next week's Democratic primary, political action committees (PACs) have pumped more than $77,000 into Lincoln's campaign.

Donors include energy, agriculture and financial services interests, industries Lincoln oversees as chairwoman of the Senate agriculture committee or as a member of energy and finance panels.

Lincoln said she pays "little attention to the amount and timing of contributions, except to ensure that I have the overall resources to compete against overwhelming outside interests" in the race.

The pattern is reflected in other parts of the country, as incumbents in close primary contests bank on the benefits of their office, a USA TODAY review of last-minute contributions shows.

"If you are looking for a good return on investment, this is a good time to give because you know the recipient will be especially grateful," said Sheila Krumholz of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign donations.

Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., received 80 percent of his late contributions from special-interest PACs, including a $3,000 donation from the International Association of Firefighters days before the May 4 primary.

He defeated Bob Thomas, who ran ads casting Souder as a career politician. "He's had our backs, so we had his," Harold Schaitberger, the firefighters' general president, said of the donation to Souder.

Souder declined to comment.

More than $70,000 in last-minute PAC money was not enough to help Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., prevail over Mike Oliverio in Tuesday's primary.

In Arkansas, 45 percent of Lincoln's campaign money through April 28 came from PACs, compared with 6 percent for Halter. Halter, who entered the race on March 1, has outside support from unions, including a $1 million anti-Lincoln ad campaign this week by the Service Employees International Union.

Late aid for Lincoln includes $2,500 from the Texas Farm Bureau. "She's shown through her actions that she understands Southern agriculture," said Jim Sartwelle, the group's public policy director.