Like most ambitious members of Congress, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida controls what’s called a leadership PAC separate from his reelection campaign. Reclaim America’s goal is “electing conservatives to the United States Senate,” according to its website.
But of the more than $1.6 million the PAC spent between July 2011 and late November, only $75,484 went to candidates, Federal Election Commission records show. The biggest chunk, $478,060, went to consultants, including several who have advised Rubio for years.
Those figures mean the committee gave less than $1 to candidates out of every $20 it spent, a 4.6 percent rate and one of the lowest of the nearly 500 leadership PACs that spent money in the 2012 election, according to a National Journal analysis of total PAC spending through mid-October.
The average of all of the leadership PACs: a 46 percent give rate to candidates.
Rubio's give rate "tells me he is using it as a political slush fund, most interested in advancing his political ambitions, and maybe his strategists have determined that giving to other candidates is not the best way to do that," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center.
While campaign committees can’t be used for personal purposes, there are few restrictions on leadership PACs. “You can pay for your country club fees out of a leadership PAC,’’ said Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics. “It’s a game without rules.”
According to National Journal's analysis, only five leadership PACs that gave money to candidates in the 2012 election donated less money to other candidates as a percentage of their overall spending than Rubio: failed 2012 presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman, ex-Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., outgoing Gov. Luis Fortuno of Puerto Rico, and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.
The members of Congress who gave roughly the same dollar amount to candidates as Rubio are virtual unknowns next to the Florida senator, one of the party’s fastest rising stars and a possible 2016 White House contender. They include Reps. Candice Miller, R-Mich., John Campbell, R-Calif., and Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.
In contrast, other high-profile, potential Republican presidential candidates spent a higher share of their leadership PAC on donations to other candidates, including Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., (26 percent), Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., (30 percent), and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., (10 percent to candidates, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV ads attacking Democrats).
Rubio’s national PAC spending mirrors the pattern he set as a member of the Florida House with two political action committees that funneled much more money to consultants and travel than to candidates. His office did not respond to specific questions about why his current rate of contributions to other candidates is so low.
In a written statement on Thursday, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said that the PAC helped the senator do more than 100 events for Republican candidates this year, including 60 events for presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “The majority of the events were fundraisers where Senator Rubio raised hundreds of thousands of dollars directly for the campaigns,” Conant wrote in an e-mail. “Every penny the PAC spends is to further its mission of electing more conservatives.” He said that Rubio was not available for an interview.
Traditionally, members of Congress use leadership PACs to curry favor with their colleagues as they seek plum committee assignments and leadership posts, or to groom like-minded candidate recruits as they expand their power base. But these PACs can also be helpful to candidates more interested in raising their national profile and bankrolling a political apparatus as they explore bids for higher office. PACs with those goals tend to give less money to candidates, and Rubio’s spending rate suggests his PAC falls into that camp.
Several politicians who have gone on to run for president have given much more money to candidates than Rubio did over similar two-year periods.
Barack Obama’s leadership PAC, for example, donated $770,968 to candidates in the first two years of his first term as an Illinois senator, about 21 percent of its spending. While Hillary Clinton served as a senator from New York, her leadership PAC gave $477,500 to candidates (19 percent of its spending) in the 2004 election, and 17 percent to candidates in the 2006 election. About 15 percent of Joe Biden’s PAC spending for the 2006 election was donations to candidates.
All three of them started their presidential races with national profiles — including Biden, a senator for three decades and a fixture on Sunday talk shows.
In contrast, Rubio’s PAC spending resembles that of past insurgent presidential candidates, including Bachmann, Huntsman, and Rick Santorum, whose America’s Foundation donated only about 3 percent of its expenditures to candidates in the 2008 and 2010 elections. Mitt Romney’s Commonwealth PAC gave 9 percent of its money to candidates in the 2006 election, before his first presidential bid.