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Luria brings in nearly $200,000 from corporate PACs since dropping pledge to reject their money

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.). (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) has accepted nearly $200,000 in contributions from corporate PACs this campaign cycle after abandoning a pledge not to accept money from corporations at the end of 2020, according to her latest year-end campaign finance filing.

It isn’t unusual for candidates for Congress and sitting members to accept corporate PAC donations, particularly for those in highly competitive races like Luria’s. But it’s unusual in Luria’s case given she had previously sworn off those donations as a way to signal to voters that she would not be influenced by corporate money during her 2018 campaign for Congress.

“Voters have lost or are losing faith in Washington, and any time someone breaks that kind of pledge, it undermines that faith even further,” said Adam Bozzi, spokesman for End Citizens United, the public-interest organization opposed to corporate influence in federal politics that has asked candidates to take the pledge rejecting corporate PAC money.

Luria became the first Democrat to abandon the pledge at the tail end of 2020, according to the group, accepting roughly $34,000 from corporate PACs to pay off campaign debt, as Roll Call reported at the time.

Since then she pulled in an additional $162,000 — including from PACs for more than a dozen defense contractors, such as Northrop Grumman and the Boeing Company — for a total of $196,000. Luria — whose Virginia Beach-anchored district includes a large population of veterans and active-duty military, and where defense-related contracts are integral to the district’s economy — is a former Navy commander who sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

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That roughly $200,000 is still just a fraction of the $2.8 million that Luria has raised in total, the majority from individual donors — but it’s a substantial amount compared to her Republican opponents, enough to make a dent in a competitive race. The $200,000 represents just under one-third of the $665,000 the apparent front-runner in the Republican primary, state Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach), has raised; Kiggans has a total of $342,000 on hand, with no corporate PAC money.

A spokesman for Luria said she was unavailable to comment and referred questions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which didn’t comment.

Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa), who like Luria is a vulnerable Democrat in a seat Republicans are aggressively targeting this cycle, became the second Democrat to begin accepting corporate PAC donations in the most recent quarter after previously rejecting that money. In a statement explaining her reversal, a spokeswoman for Axne’s campaign recently told the Des Moines Register that Axne was up against “thousands of individual ads and millions in dark money spending already targeted at her in the past year,” and that in accepting the corporate PAC money she wanted to “stay on a level playing field” in her race.

Luria no doubt faces a similar quandary in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, a swing district that only got redder after redistricting. Ever since Luria flipped the district blue in 2018, national Republicans have been vying to win it back, with conservative PACs such as the Club for Growth or the Congressional Leadership Fund — House Republicans’ super PAC — spending millions of dollars on ads against her. That may have presented a choice for Luria between maximizing her campaign war chest as much as possible — or facing political consequences for going back on a promise she made in 2018.

At the time, Luria described her pledge not to accept corporate PAC money as “a key tenet in my campaign.” In a debate against Republican Scott Taylor, whom she ousted, she said that she would not accept money from “from prescription drug companies, not from oil companies, not from health-care companies, not from private prisons, not from anyone who can influence my vote when I go to Washington.”

Luria did not speak about the pledge during her 2020 campaign. Explaining her reversal to the Virginian-Pilot last year after accepting the initial $34,000 from corporate PACs, her campaign manager, Kate Fegley, said Luria had “learned more about the issue from her constituents and made the decision to accept corporate employee pooled PAC contributions, as they are an important way for the average person to be involved in the political process.”

She noted Luria had always accepted money from labor organizations, trade associations and other ideological PAC money and that this was just an additional way for employees to contribute.

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Bozzi pushed back on the idea that most corporate PAC money is from rank-and-file employees. He noted companies can only solicit donations from them on limited occasions and that it is typically upper-level management, executives or shareholders exerting the most control over the PAC, deciding to direct it to members of Congress for the purpose of furthering their business interests. “They lobby for corporate interests. They’re not secretive about that. That’s why they exist,” Bozzi said.

But it’s far more the norm for members of Congress to accept corporate PAC money than the exception. In 2018, the year Luria swore off the money, front-line Democrats in highly competitive races accepted on average $348,000 from corporate PACs, according to data End Citizens United compiled then, making Luria’s corporate PAC contributions through 2021 largely on par with Democrats in situations similar to hers.

Bozzi applauded the 59 Democrats in Congress who have chosen to forgo the money, noting that while it may not represent the most money a candidate raises, it still amounts to a financial sacrifice to reject it. Three Republicans — Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Josh Hawley (Mo.), and Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) — also stopped taking corporate PAC donations but for different reasons.

Still, Bozzi noted that some vulnerable Democrats who have taken the pledge have no problem gathering large campaign war chests without the corporate money, and can even raise more; Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), for example, has raised $3 million this campaign cycle without any corporate PAC money.

Luria’s reelection campaign is expected to be one of the most hotly contested nationwide. She defeated Taylor in a rematch in 2020 by about six percentage points — but after redistricting, her district swung to the right several points. While former president Donald Trump won the newly drawn district by about five points in 2016, President Biden would have won it by just one point in 2020, making it a decidedly purple district.

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Luria’s corporate PAC donors include companies associated with the oil industry, such as PACs for two Alaska Native land and natural resources management corporations — Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and Chugach Alaska Corporation — and Overseas Shipholding Group, which manages oil tankers and tug barges. She has accepted money from a PAC for one health-care company, Magellan Health Inc., as well as others that have a direct nexus to her district, such as from Tyson Foods, which has a production plant on the Eastern Shore. The companies’ cumulative donations range from under $1,000 to $10,000.

Michael Gilbert, director of the University of Virginia School of Law’s Center for Public Law and Political Economy who specializes in campaign finance, said that federal limits on corporate PAC donations exist to prevent companies from wielding undue influence over a lawmaker. At the state level in Virginia, by comparison, huge companies such as Dominion Energy are able to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates.

Gilbert said that, on the federal level, it makes sense that lawmakers are responsive to some degree to business needs, particularly if they matter to the economy in a lawmaker’s district.

“Lots of people in politics and beyond I think would say it’s perfectly reasonable to take these contributions,” Gilbert said. “Those corporations employ people, and those corporations make important goods and provide important services ... You would be a poor representative if you ignored the needs of businesses in your community.”

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