Rep. Clyburn spreads his campaign wealth to push ‘progressive’ agenda

Congressman James Clyburn encourages voter turn out at JH Adams Gymnasium on the Allen University campus in Columbia, S.C., on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014.
Congressman James Clyburn encourages voter turn out at JH Adams Gymnasium on the Allen University campus in Columbia, S.C., on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014. MCT

South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn may not face a difficult re-election on Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean he’s not been busy this campaign season.

The No. 3 Democrat in the House of Representatives, Clyburn has been aiding Democrats in elections around the country through his own political action committee. He’s given more than $700,000 to candidates, political committees and parties, according to the latest federal data.

“I’m trying to push an agenda in the Congress,” Clyburn told McClatchy. “And I will support anyone in the Congress who I feel will bring a vote to that body that will be in support of those efforts that will keep our children and grandchildren from reliving the history that I lived.”

Clyburn does this through a type of political action committee known as a leadership PAC, which many lawmakers use to contribute to their colleagues. His BRIDGE PAC – Building Relationships in Diverse Geographic Environments _ has since 2008 been in the top 10 among leadership PACs that support other candidates.

Clyburn’s PAC also holds another distinction: Among those which have raised more than $1 million, his gives the highest percentage _ 63 percent _ of its funds to other candidates, parties or PACs, said Sarah Bryner, research director at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance issues.

“Leadership PACs, which are theoretically designed to give money from one candidate to another…very frequently don’t do that at all,” Bryner said. “And in some cases, there are just incredibly small amounts of money that go from leadership PACs…to other candidates.”

Take, for instance, three powerhouse PACs which raked in more than $1 million. The leadership PAC of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, contributed just 9 percent of its funds to candidates, PACs or parties, according to federal campaign data. Those run by Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky were even lower; each contributed just 3 percent of its money to candidates, PACs and parties. All three senators are weighing possible presidential campaigns in 2016.

In Clyburn’s case, he can afford _ literally and figuratively _ to concentrate on his colleagues even though he has own race to run. The 74-year-old lawmaker is seeking a 12th term from a safe Democratic district,

and the Sixth is the only Democratic congressional seat in the state. President Barack Obama won 73 percent of the vote there in 2012.

“He is, of course, quite safe here in South Carolina in terms of his district,” former Democratic National Committee Chairman Don Fowler of South Carolina, said of Clyburn. “Nobody can touch him, either in the primary or in general elections. So that enables him to be a little bit more flexible.”

It also hasn’t hurt that the state Republican Party recently disavowed his Republican opponent _ Anthony Culler, the party’s own candidate _ for likening same-sex couples to ”gremlins” who are “so destructive.” The third candidate in the race is Libertarian Kevin Umbaugh.

David Woodard, a Republican political consultant and political science professor at Clemson University, said leadership PACs are crucial for politicians to build their reputation on the Hill, even if South Carolina voters aren’t always aware of how those PACs work.

As the assistant Democratic leader in House, Clyburn’s generosity toward his colleagues at election time buys him political chits during the legislative session when the party leadership is looking for votes. It also can help secure support in January when the new Congress will convene and each party will hold leadership elections.

That system of political give and take translated to Clyburn contributions to races all over the map. Back home in the state, he aided three House candidates and Democrat Brad Hutto, who is running against Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.

“He does raise money on a continuous basis,” Fowler said of Clyburn. “And he is generous with that money, all within the confines of the laws and regulations.”

From the Microsoft to McDonald’s, his PAC draws support form a range of donors. Only three were from South Carolina: Clyde Selleck of Michelin North America; Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, a government relations firm; and SCANA Corporation, an energy company.

Clyburn acknowledged criticism about the money behind his motivation to take up certain issues in Congress, like nuclear energy. He said was pro-nuclear energy before he ever got to Congress. SCANA is the parent company of South Carolina Electric & Gas Company, which is building new nuclear reactors.

“For people to take my old history and try to boil it down to who may support me…It’s just not true,” Clyburn said.

Clyburn said he will return a donation if he does not agree with the donor’s business practices or agenda, and that he has also has supported Republicans. His PAC “isn’t just about Democrats and Republicans,” but about “a progressive agenda that is dedicated to keeping our country from going back to a bad place.”

Woodward, the Republican consultant, said Clyburn maintains a good reputation on both sides of the aisle, and his influence brings attention to the state.

“When Jim Clyburn’s up there on the podium behind (Democratic Rep.) Nancy Pelosi when she was speaker of the House...even Republicans feel like they have an influence in Washington because he’s there,” Woodard said. “He’s in the wrong party in their mind, but he’s nonetheless a national leader from South Carolina. That means something.”

Daniel Salazar of the Washington Bureau contributed.

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