A few thoughts on campaign donations and Iowa caucus endorsements

Former Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy resigned as state political director for Tom Steyer's presidential campaign on November 8, a day after Alexandra Jaffe reported for the Associated Press that Murphy "privately offered campaign contributions to local politicians in exchange for endorsing his White House bid, according to multiple people with direct knowledge of the conversations."

Among politically active Iowans, reaction to Jaffe's scoop ranged from anger to disappointment to a shrug: "Isn’t this long accepted practice?"

No. While presidential hopefuls and their affiliated committees have often donated to Democratic candidates and party organizations, hoping for future support, it is rare for anyone to dangle a possible donation in exchange for an endorsement.

Jaffe quoted State Representative Karin Derry as saying

Murphy didn’t explicitly offer a specific dollar amount, but made it clear Derry would receive financial support if she backed Steyer.

“It was presented more as, he has provided financial support to other down-ballot candidates who’ve endorsed him, and could do the same for you,” she said.

Former State Senator Tom Courtney told the AP his conversation with an unnamed Steyer representative (later confirmed to be Murphy) “left a bad taste in my mouth.”

“Tom, I know you’re running for Senate. I’m working for Tom Steyer,” Courtney recalled hearing from the aide. “Now you know how this works. ... He said, ‘You help them, and they’ll help you.’”

Derry's serving her first term in the legislature, so hasn't been courted by presidential candidates before this cycle. But Courtney's been through a few Iowa caucuses. First elected to the legislature in 2004, he served three terms before losing in 2016 and is running for his former seat again.

Hours after the AP story hit the wire, the Steyer campaign said in a statement, “Tom has not made any individual contributions to candidates in Iowa this year, and he will not be making any contributions." In the same written statement, Murphy didn't dispute anything Jaffe reported but implied he had been misunderstood.

As a former legislator, I know how tricky the endorsement process can be for folks in Iowa. It was never my intention to make my former colleagues uncomfortable, and I apologize for any miscommunication on my part. I joined the campaign because I believe Tom is the best candidate to take on Donald Trump and that he shares Iowa values. I know that Tom's message will resonate with leaders across the state and that any endorsements will come from the merit of his message.

Late in the day on November 8, the campaign announced in a news release,

“After the conclusion of an investigation alleging improper communications with elected officials in Iowa, Pat Murphy has offered his resignation from the campaign effective immediately.

“Our campaign policy is clear that we will not engage in this kind of activity, or any kind of communication that could be perceived as improper. Violation of this policy is not tolerated.

“The endorsements Tom receives are the sole result of his consistent efforts engaging communities, meeting them where they are, and earning their trust and respect with his unifying messages. The campaign will continue to seek them in Iowa and other parts of the country."

Murphy did not respond to Bleeding Heartland's requests for additional comment following his resignation.

Speaking to the Des Moines Register's Ian Richardson following his CNN town hall in Grinnell on November 10, Steyer affirmed, "I haven’t given any money to anyone in Iowa. We’re not going to give any money to anyone in Iowa." He characterized Murphy's actions as "vague but improper" and "said adamantly his campaign would never have fulfilled a pay-for-endorsement offer."

A few additional points are worth noting:

No one was offered a personal payoff.

Unlike the scandal that landed former Republican State Senator Kent Sorenson in federal prison, the support Murphy apparently floated would have been campaign contributions, not a payment for the down-ballot candidate's personal benefit.

No one has alleged anything illegal occurred or was even proposed.

Presidential candidates and/or their affiliated political action committees can and regularly do donate to Iowa candidates.

Paul Deaton, a Johnson County Democratic activist who is supporting Elizabeth Warren, commented on Twitter after Jaffe's story broke, "While post-Sorenson this is taboo, I've been to meetings where the presidential hopeful handed out the checks personally." Deaton clarified, "they were written from a PAC the hopeful managed."

As long as such contributions are reported later on campaign finance disclosures, there's nothing improper about the practice. (Sorenson and some Ron Paul campaign operatives faced criminal charges in part because the payments were not disclosed.) The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board's database shows numerous donations this year and during the last election cycle. Here are just a few examples:

  • Goveror Steve Bullock's Big Sky Values PAC donated to nine Iowa Democratic candidates in 2018 and made contributions to the Iowa Democratic Party this year, before Bullock launched his presidential campaign.
  • U.S. Representative Eric Swalwell's New Energy PAC donated to ten local, legislative, or statewide candidates in Iowa during the last cycle. Swalwell was a presidential candidate for some months but dropped out in July.
  • U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley's Opportunity & Renewal PAC donated to more than two dozen Iowa candidates during the 2018 cycle (see here and here). Merkley decided early this year not to run for president in 2020.
  • Incidentally, public records indicate Steyer made no personal donations to Iowa candidates during the last election cycle--only a $15,000 gift to the Iowa Democratic Party in September 2018. The NextGen Climate Action Committee, which Steyer founded, supported many Iowa Democratic candidates in 2014. Its only recorded gift here this year was to Eric Giddens shortly before his special election in Iowa Senate district 30, a closely-watched and competitive race.

    Typically, presidential candidate support comes with no strings attached.

    Presidential hopefuls help down-ballot candidates many ways: speaking at public events that generate media coverage, headlining fundraisers that boost public interest and attendance, and helping to get the vote out. Ten presidential candidates themselves knocked doors for Giddens before the March special election in Cedar Falls and Waterloo, and others assigned staff to GOTV for him. Giddens endorsed Warren last month.

    State Senator Zach Wahls, who also recently endorsed Warren, noted in a Twitter thread that several presidential candidates attended a fundraiser he held this past summer, and others bought tickets, for which he was grateful. "And like all political fundraising that involves a direct ask, that can feel a little odd at times," Wahls added. "But there is a world of difference between 'Hey, will you speak at my event?' and 'Hey, I will give you money if you will support my campaign.'"

    Given the outsized influence of money in politics, it's natural to be cynical about donations from presidential candidates. Sorenson has characterized the Iowa caucuses as "a curse on our state," a "corrupt fiasco," and an "environment that cultivates shady dealings."

    I disagree. Presidential contenders may have self-serving reasons for supporting down-ballot Iowa candidates, but the process is not inherently corrupt. When choosing to endorse or stay neutral before the caucuses, Iowa office-holders and candidates may be driven by many factors: ideology, a stance on an issue of particular importance to them, a sense of who's most popular among their constituents, who's on track to win the caucuses, or who would be the best general-election candidate. Sorenson notwithstanding, I doubt many have made their choice because of a campaign contribution.

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