As midterm fundraising intensifies, a bizarre contest is developing between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio: Who can lob the harshest ethics attacks but scoop up the most special-interest money between now and Election Day?
It's an open question whether voters will really care that Boehner says Pelosi has broken her promise to clean up the House, or that Pelosi and her allies say Boehner's a patsy to lobbyists. Both have pocketed more than $300,000 apiece from lawyers and lobbyists in this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And there are plenty of ethics violations to go around in both leaders' caucuses.
But the ethics and fundraising war pitting the speaker against the minority leader has implications for the midterms and beyond. Boehner's frenetic schedule, tech savvy and use of multiple campaign accounts have helped him outraise both Pelosi and her top fundraising lieutenant, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. Boehner's edge contrasts with the cash advantage that Democratic Party committees enjoy over their GOP counterparts.
Both Boehner and Pelosi report insurance, real estate and securities and investment firms among their top donors.
At the same time, Boehner's aggressive, unapologetic style could prove risky, given polls that show voter disgust with corporate money now cuts across party lines. One Voter Roll Call survey last month found that a surprising 81 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of independents, along with 85 percent of Democrats, agree that "corporate lobbyists have too much influence over members of Congress."
Boehner has pulled in just under $7 million this cycle between his campaign war chest and his leadership political action committee, dubbed the Freedom Project. That's more than twice the amount Pelosi has raised for her campaign and leadership committees -- nearly $3 million. For his part, Hoyer has netted $6.3 million for his campaign and leadership PAC accounts.
Boehner is also raising millions through a so-called joint fundraising committee, known as Boehner for Speaker, that under law may collect as much as $37,800 a pop from any individual donor. Though increasingly common, such joint committees are controversial because they let lawmakers solicit far bigger checks than the $2,400-per-election limit for individual campaign donations.
The committee pulled in just over $570,000 through June 30, public records show, but reports say that number's now up to $2 million. That joint account divvies up funds between Boehner, his PAC and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
But Boehner's biggest haul -- some $15 million -- comes from headlining more than 120 fundraisers all over the country for individual GOP candidates, said Freedom Project Communications Director Don Seymour. He's also raised $12.4 million for the NRCC, including more than $1.8 million transferred directly from his campaign committee and his PAC. Seymour pegs Boehner's GOP fundraising total at $36 million. Boehner's goal is to raise $50 million for the NRCC, he announced in August.
He has spent more than $600,000 on overhead on his Freedom Project PAC, turning it into a high-tech command center that now boasts a sleek Web site with tens of thousands of fans on Facebook and Twitter, and a sophisticated new "Build Your Ticket" link that invites visitors to create a slate of their favorite candidates and bundle donations for them directly.
The site pictures Boehner in a sporty red jacket in front of a massive stone fireplace flanked with American flags, and features blogs, news updates and voter guides. More than a half-dozen GOP operatives are on the payroll, including Seymour and NRCC Deputy Executive Director Johnny DeStefano. PAC expenditures include some $76,000 for Internet media.
Boehner "is leading by example in making sure our candidates have the resources they need to compete, and in using technology to engage with voters in new ways," said Seymour.
Democrats have gone to town trumpeting Boehner's notorious golf junkets and fundraisers; his high-dollar trips with lobbyists; his swank fundraising dinners at the likes of Washington's Oceanaire Seafood Room and the Monocle, and his generous donations from securities, real estate and banking interests.
In the wake of a New York Times story this month that detailed Boehner's close K Street ties, the Democratic National Committee ran an ad lampooning "Boehner Land," as the minority leader's inner circle is known: "Get in the door for $37,000. Jet across the country with lobbyists. Pass out campaign checks from Big Tobacco on the House floor. Team up with Wall Street to block reform."
Boehner's office has assailed "inaccuracies and distortions" in the Times report. GOP bloggers fired back with claims that Pelosi has raised more from lobbyists than Boehner. In fact, Boehner's various accounts have raised $165,564 from lobbyists in this cycle, while Pelosi's have collected $109,600, Center for Responsive Politics data shows.
But both Boehner and Pelosi report insurance, real estate and securities and investment firms among their top donors. "Industries have no care for partisanship," noted Center for Responsive Politics spokesman Dave Levinthal. "They want to hedge their bets. They want to back a winner." Little wonder that Pelosi and Boehner are courting industry donors so aggressively -- even as they assail one another for stooping so low.