Personal finance

Conor Lamb’s Shift on Campaign Finance

In 2018, Conor Lamb won a House seat in a Western Pennsylvania district that Donald Trump had carried by 20 points only two years prior. Lamb, an ex-military moderate who rode in on the Trump backlash, differentiated himself with one commitment in particular: campaign finance reform.

Lamb was an early signee of the No Corporate PAC pledge, forswearing lucrative contributions from corporate treasuries and embracing a campaign strategy that had overwhelmingly been a hallmark of progressive candidates. Lamb ended up being one of the biggest long-shot triumphs for Democratic campaign finance reform groups. According to Roll CallEnd Citizens United was one of Lamb’s first national endorsements.

Lamb, in turn, became the first candidate to put his No Corporate PAC money pledge in mailers and television ads. His 2018 campaign messaging di lui lamented the presence of super PAC money in the race. “Conor Lamb’s running a grassroots campaign up against millions in spending from dark money super PACs — and it’s a dead heat,” his campaign account tweeted ahead of Election Day.

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In office, Lamb sided with President Trump and Republicans on a number of occasions. He supported Trump’s border wall; he opposed the HEROES Act, a 2020 Democratic COVID relief bill that was the precursor to the American Rescue Plan; and rejected a measure that sought to prevent President Trump from using the military against Black Lives Matter protesters. But his commitment to him on campaign finance was consistent. He was a onetime co-sponsor of the Ban Corporate PACs Act, a bill that, while criticized for being less than airtight, did suggest a commitment to stricter campaign finance standards. Lamb even voted in support of HR 1, House Democrats’ voting rights bill that would have aggressively reined in money in politics.

Lamb is now running for Pennsylvania’s vacant Senate seat, one of a handful of promising pickup opportunities for Democrats, as Republican Pat Toomey retires at the end of this session, and Biden won statewide in Pennsylvania just two years ago. But on campaign finance, Lamb has done an about-face. Staring down a fundraising deficit and a stubborn, substantial gap in the polls, trailing Lt. Gov. John Fetterman by 25-plus pointsLamb has turned to the type of big-money fundraising strategies he once scorned.

A super PAC called Penn Progress has been set up to boost Lamb’s sinking candidacy, and Lamb has embraced its support. Penn Progress is run by Erik Smith, who heads up a communications firm that works for Cigna, and is promoted by James Carville, the veteran Democratic strategist.

According to reporting in Politic and elsewhere, Lamb has been closely engaged in the super PAC’s fundraising and activities. Lamb has repeatedly dialed in directly to calls with donors to the super PAC to make his pitch as a candidate, only to get off the call to allow Smith to make the hard fundraising ask. This is perfectly legal, but common sense would dictate that it makes a mockery of the alleged regulations on super PACs preventing “collaboration” between PAC and candidate. Penn Progress is aiming to raise some $ 8 million.

Coordination between a candidate and a super PAC supporting that candidate is illegal. But the standard for “coordination” is extremely permissive. Lamb is allowed to speak with potential supporters of his super PAC di lui, and so long as he doesn’t solicit the donation himself, he’s unlikely to have run afoul of the law. In this manner, Lamb is able to tap into the unlimited financial support that comes with a super PAC backing.

Lamb’s pivot away from higher campaign finance standards is especially surprising given the issue’s salience in the Democrats’ all-important voting rights agenda.

These gaping loopholes are the standards set in place by the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United. It’s something Lamb knows well, given his bygone opposition to exactly those provisions in campaign finance law. The decision in Citizens United held that “independent political spending” did not present a substantive threat of corruption, allowing corporations to spend unlimited funds on campaign advertising via super PACs, provided that they are not formally “coordinating” with a candidate or political party.

These are the same corporations whose donations Lamb swore off with his pledge to not collect money from corporate PACs. “When a candidate calls in, it’s an indication to wealthy donors that he wants them to write large checks to the super PAC, and a clear endorsement of that PAC,” said Brendan Fischer, deputy executive director of Documented, a money-in- politics watchdog organization. “It may not technically be a flip-flop, but the benefit of the ‘No Corporate PAC’ pledge is its symbolic value telling voters you’re refusing to embrace big money in politics. Calling into a super PAC indicates that the super PAC is not independent under any normal understanding of the word. “

The not illegal but certainly not savory coordination between Lamb and his super PAC has gone beyond just fundraising as well. Penn Progress has taken its messaging strategies and cues from Lamb’s website, often verbatim. Unfortunately for them, those cues haven’t always been thoroughly fact-checked. When Penn Progress went up with a recent, major ad buy, wrongly accusing John Fetterman of self-identifying as a democratic socialist, the ad was roundly criticized for being misleading. Yet this claim originates from Lamb’s campaign by him. Last December, Politico wrote that Lamb’s team supplied them with articles where other reporters called Fetterman a “self-described democratic socialist,” and Lamb himself said that the “socialist” label “is a jersey that John has worn in the past.”

Lamb’s website still features other messaging points from the ad, including a dig at Fetterman as a “silver spoon socialist,” but the point about Fetterman calling himself a democratic socialist has been deleted.

The ad was eventually taken off the air, a step that’s extremely uncommon in political advertising, where stretching the truth is commonplace. The ad was so pilloried for its false claims that local Pennsylvania media like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette even ran a column calling on Lamb to “disavow his super PAC’s deceptive ad.”

Lamb’s pivot away from higher campaign finance standards is especially surprising given its salience in the Democrats’ all-important voting rights agenda, which he has supported. Even the Freedom to Vote Act, the Joe Manchin – led, watered-down Senate version of the House’s For the People Act, retained a number of strong regulations on disclosure and super PAC coordination. Lamb voted for the For The People Act, and there was no indication he’d have been opposed to the Senate version.

But under either version, his current fundraising approach and coziness with Penn Progress would have been illegal. “Fundraising for the PAC would’ve been effectively prohibited if either bill became law, including the bill Lamb voted for,” said Fischer. “Under these bills, the effect of a candidate raising money for a super PAC is to prohibit the PAC from spending more than $ 5,000 in support of that candidate’s campaign.”

Manchin, of course, ended up torpedoing the Freedom to Vote Act, and those standards along with it. Manchin has also been a close friend of Lamb’s in Washington, a relationship Lamb has gone to great lengths to distance himself from in the course of this primary race. Manchin’s name has proven toxic, for good reason, amongst Democratic voters.

Still, it’s difficult to reconcile Lamb’s longtime support of curtailing money in politics with his newfound embrace of the most dubious practices of campaign fundraising. And as Democrats continue to promise that democracy protection will be a top priority once a Manchin-proof majority is secured in the Senate, it begs the question of whether Senator Lamb, if he makes it that far, would even support that legislation.