Update, Feb. 19, 2015, 11:25 a.m.: On Feb. 18, Center for Public Integrity reporter Michael Beckel appeared on Iowa Public Radio to discuss this story’s findings. Listen on Iowapublicradio.org.
In August, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Iowa Republican state Rep. Bobby Kaufmann drove for an hour together between political events in Davenport and Iowa City, jawing about property rights and eminent domain.
In October, Paul headlined a Kaufmann campaign fundraiser, where nearly 400 attendees chowed on barbecued pork, beans and cheesy potatoes in Kaufmann’s eastern Iowa hometown of Wilton, population 2,800.
And that same month, Paul’s political action committee sent Kaufmann’s campaign a $1,000 check.
Paul’s courting of a 29-year-old chairman of the Iowa House’s government oversight committee who has no national stature is hardly accidental: Should the Kentucky Republican run for president, he’ll desperately need support from local leaders like Kaufmann.
Kaufman, however, hasn’t committed to Paul, who was again visiting Iowa last weekend, or any other potential candidate.
“I’m not endorsing anyone yet,” Kaufmann told the Center for Public Integrity.
Paul’s charm offensive isn’t unique: During 2013 and 2014, potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates gave an outsized share of contributions from their PACs to politicians and political groups from Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that host the nation’s first presidential nominating contests.
They use their PACs to lay the groundwork for possible campaigns and cultivate relationships on the ground with state officials and party activists long before they officially launch presidential bids.
That means people like Paul, a senator elected to represent Kentucky voters, are spending huge amounts of attention on Iowa, New Hampshire and other states far from their constituents.
During the past two years, six high-profile Republicans collectively spread $340,000 through their PACs — about 25 percent of their overall contributions — to nearly 100 beneficiaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of federal filings.
Together, Iowa and New Hampshire are home to about 1.4 percent of all Americans.
Paul, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton are the six potential GOP presidential candidates whose federal PACs each doled out at least $25,000 during the past two years to candidates and political groups in these two states.
By contrast, these men together used their PACs to contribute about $100,000 to politicians and groups in their respective home states.
Other prospective GOP presidential candidates — including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — have, in recent weeks, also launched their own PACs, which they may use in a similar fashion in the months ahead.
By law, potential presidential hopefuls’ PACs can’t fund campaign activities. But these political committees are the perfect tools for providing financial support to like-minded candidates and footing the bill for activities that federal regulators don’t consider campaign expenses.
These PACs are allowed to accept contributions of up to $5,000 per year from individuals, including people who have already donated to the politician’s official campaign committee.
Paul’s PAC alone donated $70,000 — about one-fourth of its overall giving during the two-year period — to candidates and groups in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Cruz’s PAC, likewise, contributed nearly $70,000 to candidates and political groups in either the Hawkeye State or Granite State — more than one-third of its total giving.
Meanwhile, Perry’s PAC trumped them all, unloading nearly 95 percent of its $98,000 in political donations into the accounts of Iowa and New Hampshire politicians — including $1,500 to Kaufmann, the Iowa representative who is also son of the state’s Republican Party chairman.
Success in Iowa could be particularly critical to Perry’s 2016 ambitions. In 2012, his presidential bid fully unraveled there, as he finished fifth in a crowded caucus field and never recovered, quitting the presidential race two weeks later.
Stefan Passantino, treasurer of Perry’s PAC, said the group backed candidates who support “limited government, job creation and border security” and that it focused on politicians in Iowa and New Hampshire “because they will be located in the center of the national debate for the next year.”
Doug Stafford, the executive director of Paul’s PAC, said its contributions were not “about impacting something [Paul] may do in the future so much as helping people in their races.”
He continued, “Many national figures often help candidates for other offices, with no particular expectations.”
Officials with the other four PACs either declined to comment or did not respond to requests.
Several PAC-money beneficiaries stressed that such transactions occur to advance shared policy interests, not because of some quid pro quo.
But they also said the money helps prospective White House candidates forge relationships with local power brokers who could provide key support during the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary.
“These candidates can raise a lot of money and they want to build relationships here, so that’s why they help with PAC money,” said state Sen. Jack Whitver, the Republican whip in the Iowa Senate, whose campaign received $2,500 from Perry last year.
Whitver specifically praised the former Texas governor for putting “a lot of time and sweat equity into Iowa” during his multiple visits to Iowa ahead of the 2014 elections.
“He saw that if we were able to win control of the state senate, we’d be able to do some really big things here,” Whitver said. “I believe he helped us out in good faith.”
When asked what national politicians expect when they make PAC contributions, Republican state Sen. Russell Prescott of New Hampshire replied: “Exactly what you expect: Hopefully somebody will answer your call.”
Prescott’s campaign last year received $1,000 from Paul’s PAC and $500 from Perry’s PAC.
That sentiment was echoed by Iowa Republican Sam Clovis, chairman of the business administration and economics department at Morningside College who unsuccessfully ran for both U.S. Senate and state treasurer last year.
“It gives them access,” Clovis said of the contributions. “I absolutely will take their calls.”
Clovis was especially popular among possible Republican presidential candidates: His state treasurer campaign received nearly $11,000 combined from the PACs of Cruz, Paul, Perry and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses when he ran for president in 2008 and is now mulling another White House bid.
Mack Shelley, chairman of the political science department at Iowa State University, says that presidential contenders often dole out PAC money with the hope of receiving “goodwill in exchange for funding,” as well as eventual endorsements.
“This is a way of making a direct appeal for statements in support of a presidential candidate’s campaign well in advance of the Iowa caucuses,” he said.
For now, the possible GOP presidential contenders are still being evaluated by many party leaders, including Prescott, Clovis and Whitver, who all described themselves as — for the moment — neutral.
For his part, Kaufmann, the Iowa representative, says the campaign contributions he has received — and for which he’s grateful —won’t affect which presidential candidate he ultimately supports.
“Regardless of whether someone’s PAC donated to my campaign or not, I still give everybody a chance,” he told the Center for Public Integrity.
“We’ve got a great slate of candidates,” Kaufmann continued. “I want somebody who can get things done and that can win. Those are my two priorities.”
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