Politics & Government

Nunes' leadership PAC helps him help other Republicans

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, invests in a lot of candidates. Of course, some bets do better than others.

Using money raised in part from prominent San Joaquin Valley businessmen, Nunes has become a leading contributor to congressional Republicans. This year, few California lawmakers can match him.

Through a special fundraising committee, Nunes has contributed some $120,000 to Republican candidates and causes since January 2007. Nearly two dozen other California members of Congress have similar committees, including Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. Only three or four, though, have spread around as much money as Nunes.

"Running for office is more expensive than ever, and the control over money becomes more fundamental," Jessica Trounstine, recently hired as an assistant professor of political science at the University of California at Merced, noted Wednesday.

The so-called leadership political action committees are separate from a candidate's standard campaign committees. They allow incumbents to help their party, build alliances and, sometimes, further their own leadership ambitions.

The committees have deep Valley routes. One of the earliest was the Valley Education Fund established by then-congressman Tony Coelho in the mid-1980s. It helped the Los Banos-area Democrat win election as House majority whip.

"The ability to distribute money within Congress allows the leadership to have more leverage over the members," Trounstine said.

Some committees don't last. Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, had only $901 left in his WESTPAC leadership committee as of May 3. It last contributed to a candidate more than five years ago.

The committees that do endure allow contributors an additional avenue to support their favorite politicians. Fresno developer Ed Kashian and frozen food manufacturer Robert Smittcamp, for instance, give thousands of dollars directly to Nunes' campaign coffers. Separately, during the 2007-2008 election cycle, each has also given the maximum $5,000 to Nunes' New PAC leadership committee.

"I think we have done well with fundraising because Devin works hard to raise the funds, and those who contribute know that we are good stewards of the funds they donate, so they are repeat donors year after year," Nunes' chief of staff, Johnny Amaral, said Wednesday.

In a similar vein, the Modesto-based Western United Dairymen joined other political action committees in contributing to Cardoza's Moderate Victory Fund. Cardoza's leadership PAC has contributed some $31,000 to candidates this election cycle.

The San Joaquin Valley funds, in turn, can go far and wide.

In March, for instance, Nunes' PAC funds flew to Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Michigan, Nevada and New York, among other states. Incumbents, rather than challengers, typically receive most of the contributions.

Lawyers also get some of the money. New PAC, for instance, contributed $5,000 to a legal defense fund for retiring Rep. John Doolittle, R-Granite Bay. Doolittle is now under investigation for his involvement with imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

And, as with any investment, past performance does not guarantee future results.

Republican president contender Rudy Giuliani topped all of his GOP rivals in several national polls last December, when New PAC contributed $5,000. That marked the high point for the former New York City mayor. Giuliani abandoned the race in late January, having failed to translate dollars and name recognition into actual votes.

On March 12, New PAC contributed $1,000 to New York Republican Vito Fosella. Fosella had safely held his Long Island seat for a decade. In April, though, northern Virginia police arrested Fosella for drunken driving. The married conservative was subsequently revealed to have fathered a daughter with his longtime mistress. Last week, Fosella announced he would retire.

"We do our best to assess the candidates that receive support," Amaral said. "Most of the time, our homework is correct. But not always, as is the case with Rudy."