EXCELSIOR, Minn. — Like many political candidates, Dean Phillips spends hours each day fund-raising and thanking his donors. But because he refuses to accept PAC money from corporations, unions or other politicians, he has adopted a unique approach.“Norbert?” he asked on the doorstep of a man who’d donated $25 to his campaign. “I’m here with…
EXCELSIOR, Minn. — Like many political candidates, Dean Phillips spends hours each day fund-raising and thanking his donors. But because he refuses to accept PAC money from corporations, unions or other politicians, he has adopted a unique approach.
“Norbert?” he asked on the doorstep of a man who’d donated $25 to his campaign. “I’m here with goodies!”
Mr. Phillips, who is running for Congress in the suburbs of Minneapolis, handed over a gift bag containing a T-shirt and bumper sticker. The exchange was recorded in a video that was shared later with his supporters to encourage them to contribute as well. Norbert Gernes, an 80-year-old retiree, was impressed.
“We desperately need to get the money out of the political system,” he said in an interview afterward. “Because I don’t think we have a Congress that’s representing the people any more.”
eked out a victory in a special election in March in a district that President Trump won by 20 points in 2016. In Ohio, another Democrat running in a red district, Daniel O’Connor, made the same pledge, and performed so well in a special election earlier this month that the race is still too close to call.
A recent Pew report found that 75 percent of the public said “there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations” can spend on political campaigns.
Take Back Our Republic, a conservative group dedicated to reducing the political influence of corporations, unions and other special interest groups.
Ken Buck, a Republican Congressman from Colorado, wrote a book last year called “Drain the Swamp: How Washington Corruption is Worse Than You Think,” detailing the way powerful posts are doled out to those who raise the most campaign money, not necessarily those with the best ideas. The cycle perpetuates itself, he wrote, as members of Congress who serve on powerful committees attract more donations for their re-election campaigns.
But Republican leaders have so far not taken up the issue. And Mr. Trump routinely endorses candidates who accept large amounts of money from corporate PACs. In the recent special election in Ohio, Mr. Trump attended a rally for Mr. O’Connor’s Republican opponent, Troy Balderson, a state senator who heads an energy committee and has received more than one-third of his campaign funds from PACs, including some with ties to oil and gas companies.
Democrats in Congress also routinely give leadership posts to top fund-raisers. But an increasing number of rising stars in the party have sworn off corporate PAC money including Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
In 2016, only three of the 41 candidates on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “red-to-blue” list of the most competitive races made the no-corporate-PAC pledge, according to Adam Bozzi, communications director at End Citizen United, a group that supports an overhaul of campaign finance laws. By contrast, 32 of the 59 candidates on the list this year are shunning corporate PACs.
Candidates can do this in part because of a sharp rise in giving by small donors.
In the last midterm election year, 2014, some 1.5 million small donors contributed a total of $335 million to Democratic campaigns across the country through ActBlue, an online platform that raises money for Democrats. This time around, about 3.8 million small donors have already contributed more than $1 billion, and are on a pace to exceed $1.5 billion before Election Day in November, according to Erin Hill, ActBlue’s Executive director. The average donation is $33.85.
Two hundred and forty million,” he said, adding: “They all but pooh-poohed any legislation that would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.”
His message is particularly potent because his opponent, Mr. Paulsen, has taken in the sixth-largest haul from PACs out of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Mr. Paulsen was under fire even before Mr. Phillips entered the race, because of his record of voting in lock step with President Trump. His district, the Third, has sent Republicans to Congress for six decades, but its voters chose Hillary Clinton for president.
Mr. Phillips is an unlikely messenger for warnings about the corrupting influence of wealth on politics. He is the heir to a liquor fortune, as the stepson of Edward Phillips, owner of Phillips Distilling Company, which popularized luxury vodka in the United States.
Mr. Paulsen’s campaign has tried to make an issue of Mr. Phillips’ wealth.
“Dean Phillips is a hypocrite spending his vast inherited wealth on his campaign, which he’s padded with investments in the very things he campaigns against,” said John-Paul Yates, Mr. Paulsen’s campaign manager.
According to Federal Election Commission filings, Mr. Phillips has contributed less than $6,000 of his own money to the campaign, and given less than $30,000 worth of in-kind donations, including the use of a pontoon boat for campaigning on Lake Minnetonka.
Mr. Phillips says his family fortune is what opened his eyes to the way money influences politics, after he began hearing from candidates who were eager to enlist him as a major donor.
“I watched the Hillary Clinton campaign, and recognized that it was so predicated on spending time with wealthy donors and not spending time in middle-class neighborhoods and rural areas,” he said.
Don Kuster, who said he has ticked the box for Mr. Paulsen in every previous election, now volunteers for Mr. Phillips’s campaign. He drives the pontoon boat and has held a meet-the-candidate party at his home, which was attended by about sixty Republicans.
“I asked him ‘What’s your thing?’ and he said, ‘Campaign finance reform,’” Mr. Kuster recalled from his first conversation with Mr. Phillips. “He said, ‘I’m not taking any PAC money. I’m not taking it from the Sierra Club. I’m not taking money from Planned Parenthood. I want to be able to make my own decisions.’ I thought, ‘Ok, that’s something I can support.’”
Laurie Wolfe, a college professor from Maple Grove, Minn., said Mr. Phillips’s no-PAC pledge has bipartisan appeal.
Ms. Wolfe is a co-chairwoman of the local chapter of Indivisible, a grass-roots network that opposes Mr. Trump’s policies, but her two brothers support Mr. Trump. At family gatherings, there is often only one issue they agree on.
“We need to get rid of these politicians who only care about their corporate donors and getting re-elected,” she said. “A lot of people like us find it refreshing to have a candidate that’s going to the people rather than the big donors.”