Washington • If this town ran like NASCAR, Rep. Rob Bishop would sport a suit coat adorned with stickers for sponsors like Northrop Grumman and BP Oil.
Rep. Chris Stewart would get a jacket emblazoned with Northrup Grumman as well as L3 Communications.
Sen. Mitt Romney could don a suit advertising his former firm, Bain Capital, and a nod to buddy Kem Gardner’s development business, Gardner Co.
But Washington isn't NASCAR.
Hundreds of millions of dollars pour into campaign accounts every year, funding races for the people who make decisions that affect Americans and the world. The donations are public — quarterly reports and monthly reports and daily in the runup to Election Day –— but politicians don’t wear their sponsors on their sleeves.
So who is funding Utah’s members of Congress? The Center for Responsive Politics provides the data for each one.
Bishop’s biggest source of campaign funds in the past election cycle, for example, comes from the oil and gas industry, to the tune of more than $108,000, mostly from political action committees. The congressman previously served as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and is now the top Republican on the panel, which has oversight of the Interior Department and its wide swath of public land, some of it leased for drilling and mineral extraction.
His committee assignment also puts him in a prime position to write legislation that directly affects the folks forking over campaign cash to him.
Bishop’s second largest donor base — casinos and the gaming industry — may be surprising to his Utah constituents, most of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which eschews all gambling.
The Natural Resources Committee also oversees Native American issues, including those related to casinos on tribal lands.
Lawyers, Realtors and lobbyists round out Bishop’s top five donor industries.
The Utah lawmaker, who isn’t running for reelection but may be eyeing the governor’s race, isn’t the biggest fundraiser in the state’s federal delegation, but his haul is typical of many members of Congress who tap into money from interests for which they also advocate.
It’s totally legal and the American political system encourages it in some ways. But it also raises concerns among critics that money flowing into elected officials’ campaign kitties gives special interests special sway.
Money and politics
Congressional seats don’t come cheap.
Then-Rep. Mia Love and her 2018 challenger, now-Rep. Ben McAdams, spent more than $9 million combined in duking it out over the 4th Congressional District seat last year. McAdams bested Love by one of the closest margins in the country.
Stewart, meanwhile, spent more than $900,000 to defeat Democrat Shireen Ghorbani, a political newcomer (and now a Salt Lake County Council member) who forked out nearly $450,000 in her bid for Congress.
That pales in comparison to last year’s Senate race.
Republican Romney raised and spent more than $5.2 million to secure his statewide seat over Democrat Jenny Wilson, who spent nearly $1 million in her race. (Wilson since has taken over from McAdams as Salt Lake County mayor.)
Federal law limits campaign contributions to $2,800 per person, per election cycle. In Utah, that means a candidate can rake in $2,800 for a convention challenge, another $2,800 if there’s a primary and another $2,800 for the general election. So a donor could throw $8,400 into a campaign.
Or, if that donor wants to be more influential, he or she could become a bundler, recruiting others to contribute to a candidate.
Then there are political action committees.
PACs, often run by corporations, associations or other interests, raise money from their employees or supporters and funnel it to candidates. The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case opened up a new form of campaign money, super PACS, which can raise and spend unlimited sums as long as they don’t coordinate with a candidate.
All of it is legal. But not without concern.
“Even the appearance of corruption and purchasing access can prove just as damaging as actual corruption to the public’s confidence,” said Beth Rotman, director of money in politics and ethics at Common Cause. “And Americans deserve a government they believe in — we all deserve to have confidence in a government that works for all of us.”
Rotman stresses that there is rarely a case of fraud tied to campaign donations, but Americans fear that the increased flow of money musters the specter that it could happen.
The University of Maryland released a study last year that found 88 percent of Americans, including large majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents, want to reduce the influence of big campaign donors.
“It's really not about whether you actually are influenced by these things,” said Rotman. “It's just as important that people think you are.”
Not that campaign donations aren't abused.
Former Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., went to jail after an investigation showed he would offer up a menu to donors of how much of a contribution would net them in federal contracts.
Embattled Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., is under investigation over his campaign spending that included paying his wife, Margaret, $3,000 a month as his campaign manager and spending $1,300 for video games, as well as airfare and hotel stays in Arizona and Italy.
Former Utah Rep. Enid Greene Waldholtz (now Enid Mickelsen) and her late father paid $100,000 in fines for federal campaign violations and her ex-husband went to prison on fraud charges.
Utah’s current members of Congress haven’t been snared in any campaign money scandals, and they say there is no correlation between the money they amass and their votes.
Not for sale
McAdams, the only Democrat in Utah’s delegation, got his biggest campaign boost from donors affiliated with the University of Utah. Also key were those linked to the Gardner Co., some Democratic fundraiser groups and those aligned with Brigham Young University.
The freshman congressman says he wasn’t even aware that those involved in the real estate business had given him money — they have, to the tune of $191,000. But he says it doesn’t affect him.
“I’m always going to work for the people of Utah and follow my conscience and what my constituents want me to do, and I think my track record has shown that,” McAdams said. “If people support me, you know, based on that, that’s a decision for them. But I’m going to always follow my inner compass and stand for what I believe in.”
McAdams voted earlier this year for a Democratic-led package that included more limits on campaign spending.
When asked if campaign money ever influences his positions or votes, Sen. Mike Lee's spokesman, Conn Carroll, responded curtly, “Absolutely not.”
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, racked up nearly $34,000 from employees of Zions Bank. His other top donors include Clarke Capital Partners and Merit Medical.
His campaign says donations don’t buy special attention.
“Congressman Curtis is so accessible and responsive to his constituents that there’s basically nothing he can offer a donor that he isn’t already doing for everyone he represents. He takes time for everybody,” said his spokeswoman Adrielle Herring.
“Typical political fundraising models offer donors some kind of exclusive access. But Congressman Curtis shouted his personal cell number over the microphone to thousands of state delegates at the nominating convention. A donor can’t get better access than that.”
Herring added that Curtis won’t take donations when he believes there will be an “implied obligation.”
Romney's office, too, stressed that the senator can't be bought.
"Senator Romney listens to the people of Utah, and he makes policy decisions based on what he believes is best for Utah and for the nation,” said spokeswoman Arielle Mueller.
Bishop's campaign didn't respond to a request for comment on this story.
The Utah Republican has been a steadfast defender of the oil and gas industry, which is his biggest campaign base. From urging cuts to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments to pushing for rollbacks of regulations that would help mineral developers, the congressman is likely the most visible member of Congress helping to open up public lands to drilling and mining.
Bishop was the keynote speaker this month at the Utah Mining Association’s annual conference and was presented the General Patrick E. Connor Award, “given annually to an individual who has provided distinguished service to Utah’s mining industry.”
Evolution of campaign donors
At America’s birth, the founders were less concerned about donors controlling elected officials than about candidates buying votes.
“George Washington could throw an amazing kegger,” said Kirk Jowers, the former head of the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics and a co-founder of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington.
Washington, Jowers said, would invite potential voters over for drinks. Other candidates followed suit.
Some contenders bribed voters outright.
In time, the money flowed the other way.
The Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies all sought special treatment from Washington through loads of cash.
Nowadays, with TV commercials and targeted digital ads, money is often key to a winning campaign.
Jowers, a Republican who has tried and advised on dozens of cases involving campaign finance law and taught a money in politics class at the U., says he doesn’t see a problem with political donations.
“In some ways, I think we need more money in politics because money can help people get more involved, and I believe first and foremost in civic participation,” he said. “But we have too much of the wrong money, meaning it comes from so few sources that it does have very real potential to be corrupting and unduly influential.”
The continuing debate over health care reform is a good example, Jowers said.
There's no question the U.S. health care system needs change but Jowers noted the avalanche of money pouring into Congress' campaign accounts in recent years from trial lawyers and insurance companies.
“That," he said, “essentially makes reforming health care almost impossible.”