This summer U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski joined forces with Michigan Republican Congressman Fred Upton to form a lucrative campaign marriage known as a joint fundraising committee. Such committees are designed so two or more candidates can team up for fundraisers, split the costs, and then divide the donations. This is a common practice for congressional candidates across the country, however what is notable about the Murkowski-Upton Victory Committee is that instead of grouping candidates from the same state or geographic region the Murkowski-Upton partnership groups the candidates by economic interest.
Senator Murkowski chairs The U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources and Congressman Upton chairs the House equivalent. The partnership structure doesn’t allow donors to donate any more money to either candidate than they otherwise would have, but it does allow donors to target one donation to two powerful incumbents at once. By forming a joint committee each can then leverage the partnership to create an attractive destination for energy industry donations.
The use of these types of committees is increasing in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision, McCutcheon v. FEC, which lifted aggregate bans on contributions to federal candidates. Rather than having to pick a select number of candidates to donate to, big money contributors can “max out” to as many as they like. Joint fundraising committees offer them a convenient avenue to do just that.
It would appear the Murkowski-Upton Victory Committee has been successful. During the 3rd quarter FEC reporting period the the committee reported donations totaling $168,200. Almost all of those donations came on one day, September 28th. That single day the committee raised $101,450. Major donors to the committee include a $10,800 donation from ExxonMobil President Rex Tillerson and $64,550 from employees and a PAC associated with the Texas-based energy and pipeline company Energy Transfer.
The committee’s proceeds, after expenses, were split almost evenly with Murkowski’s campaign receiving $66,824.
Criticism of the Committee
While little has been reported on the fundraising arrangement in Alaska, it has drawn criticism outside.
According to reporting by the International Business Times both the pairing and timing of the partnership raises ethical concerns:
“The timing of the donations from Energy Transfer and other contributors coincided with the introduction of legislation the industry had been seeking from the House and Senate panels. On July 22, Murkowski introduced a bill including provisions that would force the Department of Energy to issue a decision within 45 days on requests to export natural gas.
Consumer groups have warned that increased exports could limit the supply of U.S. natural gas, sending prices higher. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, then offered an amendment that would have given regulators additional power to limit natural gas export approvals. The Murkowski-led committee voted that proposal down.
On July 29, Murkowski and Upton filed the paperwork launching their joint fundraising committee, called the Murkowski Upton Victory Committee. The next day, the Senate committee passed Murkowski’s bill, with the natural gas provisions intact.”
Congressman Upton’s Democratic opponent Paul Clements took that criticism a step further, issuing a press statement saying:
“This is a clear conflict of interest. Congressman Upton and Congresswoman Murkowski should return this money or resign.” and “This is a clear sign of the corrupting influence of money in politics.”
For their part, the Murkowski campaign is downplaying the significance of the joint effort with Upton. Murkowski’s campaign manager Scott Kendall said there is nothing inappropriate about the arrangement and the pairing just made good sense “Given their shared view that we need to expand domestic energy production it’s natural they would host joint events.” He went on to described the committee as little more than a temporary legal structure to accommodate a one-time partnership “If you hold a joint event, you have have to form a joint committee.“ But he didn’t rule out future use of the committee “There may or may not be events going forward.”
Alaska Democrats Use Joint Fundraising Committee Too
Murkowski isn’t the only one using the joint fundraising committee structure. Earlier this year the Alaska Democratic Party (ADP) formed a similar effort to raise and share money jointly with the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.
The ADP’s use of such a committee was criticized sharply by longtime Alaska Republican Party organizer Paulette Simpson in an editorial published by the Alaska Dispatch News saying:
“Once, the Democratic Party billed itself as the champion of American workers. Today’s Democrats are focused on their wealthy donors.”
In responses Alaska Democratic Party Chairman Mike Wenstrup wrote a defense, calling the structure:
“a transparent mechanism for donations to the state party in advance of the general election, regardless of the outcome of the Democratic presidential primary.”
The arrangement will likely aid the ADP by allowing the state party to receive a portion of the money generated by grassroots support for Hillary Clinton in state. In effect, the party can raise money using Clinton’s name. Such an arrangement could provide a huge revenue stream for state parties. Despite their criticism of the ADP’s use of a partnership with Clinton, expect to see the Alaska Republican Party quickly set up a similar effort once they know who the Republican nominee for president will be.