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PAC free with cash for GOP hopefuls

Huckabee setuptops other giving by Frank E. Lockwood | March 28, 2021 at 4:44 a.m.
Republican presidential candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee speaks at Inspired Grounds Cafe, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016, in West Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

WASHINGTON -- Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, through his political action committee, gave more money to 2020 U.S. House and Senate candidates than did the leadership PACs affiliated with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., or House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Little Rock-based Huck PAC donated nearly $1.9 million to federal office seekers during the past election cycle, helping to fund House Republican gains from coast to coast.

Among the nation's 624 leadership PACs, only the one affiliated with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., gave more, funneling nearly $2.5 million to federal Republican candidates, the center said.

Pelosi's and Hoyer's leadership PACs gave roughly $1.25 million each to Democrats. Scalise's gave roughly $1.5 million.

While several former officeholders also have leadership PACs, none of them came close to matching Huck PAC's donations, said Andrew Mayersohn, the center's committees researcher.

"Huckabee's is, by far, the largest this cycle that was not associated with a sitting member of Congress. Most of the big ones are associated with a member of the [congressional] leadership," Mayersohn said.

Including state and local contests, Huck PAC made total contributions of nearly $2.7 million to 456 candidates, its website states.

The organization raised nearly $12.9 million and spent nearly $11.2 million during the election cycle.

As of Dec. 31, it had cash on hand totaling $1,847,088, up from $220,249 at the end of the 2018 cycle.

Huck PAC gave $5,000 to then-President Donald Trump's unsuccessful reelection bid, but fared better with Capitol Hill races.

Scores of incumbent Republicans received Huckabee's backing, as did large numbers of Republican hopefuls.

"We [gave] to every pro-life House and Senate candidate we could find who was willing to receive funds," Huckabee told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in an email.

Of the 15 Republicans flipping Democratic House seats in November, 14 had received Huck PAC money.

U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, the only Republican to unseat a Democratic senator last year, was another beneficiary.

In many of those highly contested races, Huckabee's PAC gave the maximum $10,000 contribution, offering help in the primary as well as the general election.

"HuckPAC intentionally gives to challengers in tough races that the big committees won't give to," Huckabee said in an email.

When Huckabee ran for president in 2008, he was barely an asterisk in the early polling. He went on to win the Iowa caucus and carry seven other states.

"I remember how valuable it was to have help when I was a nobody and people gave me no chance to win," he said.

"We help incumbents as well, but we're most excited about being the first to give in some of the congressional races that weren't on the radar of many people, but they ended up beating an incumbent Dem," he said in the email.

While Huck PAC's giving was national in scope, it disproportionately benefited Arkansas candidates and causes.

Eighty-one Republican candidates for the state General Assembly received $2,800 donations last year.

Eleven of the 12 state Senate candidates with Huck PAC endorsements got elected or reelected. Sixty-seven of the 69 Huckabee-backed House candidates won their races.

Huckabee's organization "was very influential [for] many individual candidates in helping them get to the finish line and making sure they were financially equipped," said Republican Party of Arkansas spokesman Seth Mays. "He's a team player, and we're certainly thankful for that."

Huck PAC gave $45,000 to members of the Arkansas congressional delegation. All five recipients were reelected.

Overall, Huck PAC reported giving Arkansas candidates and causes $307,400, including $2,800 to Supreme Court Justice Barbara Webb's successful campaign and David "Alan" Bubbas' unsuccessful race for Little Rock city director.

The figure also includes $5,000 for the Republican Party of Arkansas and $25,000 for Arkansans for Transparency, a group that successfully blocked ballot measures concerning redistricting and ranked-choice balloting.

Webb's husband, then-Republican Party of Arkansas Chairman Doyle Webb, received more than $12,500 for his work with Arkansans for Transparency, according to a statement of financial interest that she filed earlier this year.

Huckabee started Huck PAC in 2008, days after conceding the Republican presidential nomination to U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Then, as now, politicians use leadership PACs to further their agendas, Mayersohn said.

"It could be to advance your personal fortunes or it could be to advance your ideological agenda or to help your friends," Mayersohn said.

Huck PAC raised $823,600 during its first year and $1.8 million during the 2010 campaign season that followed.

In the subsequent two-year election cycles, it raised $1.06 million, $2.26 million, $1.08 million and $1.47 million.

Generally, current officeholders find it easier to raise money than do former officeholders, Mayersohn said.

Huckabee's managed to raise $12.9 million despite that disadvantage.

"Kevin McCarthy's leadership PAC gets tons of contributions from corporate PACs, people who want to curry favor with the Republican leadership so they donate," Mayersohn said.

McCarthy's list includes more than 170 major corporate PACs, ranging from Boeing, Microsoft and Walmart to Raytheon, General Motors and Delta Airlines, according to the center.

Huckabee's PAC reported no major contributions from big corporate PACs, the center said.

The governor's PAC gets more of its money from tens of thousands of small donors -- people giving $200 or less per cycle, Mayersohn said.

Of Huck PAC's nearly $12.9 million in donations during the 2020 cycle, nearly $9.6 million was not itemized, meaning it came from small donors who gave less than $200.

The donor base skews older.

Of the contributors listed on its year-end Federal Election Commission report, 92% were described as retired.

Most of the money that Huck PAC raises -- 63.8% -- is spent on fundraising, the center's analysis shows.

Its biggest vendor, Manassas, Va.-based Planet Direct Mail, received nearly $2.3 million for its work during the 2020 cycle, the center said.

Another direct-mail company, Forest, Va.-based RST Marketing, came next with $1.2 million, followed by HSP Direct, with $1.1 million. HSP is based in Ashburn, Va., and describes itself as an "award-winning, direct mail, fundraising agency."

In an email, Huckabee challenged claims that three-fifths of the PACs revenue is spent on fundraising.

"That might be true if we used mail and emails in a more traditional way, but we use those to actually make voter contacts and advocate for prolife candidates," he said.

"Traditional mail fundraising is effective, but there is a large cost for the return. We started using our mail program to communicate about candidates and issues, and found that it was more effective in raising funds for direct support for candidates. We also kept our donors apprised of where the money went and how our candidates did," he said.

While Huckabee moved to Florida after his 2008 run for president, his PAC never left Arkansas.

After living for a decade on the Gulf Coast, Huckabee announced in December that he would be selling his home and moving back to the Natural State, where his daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is a candidate for governor.

In an interview, Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Michael John Gray said he believes there's a connection between the uptick in Huck PAC giving and Sanders' gubernatorial bid.

"It's an easy line to draw," he said.

After a decade as an out-of-state resident, "I think it's about buying the Republican Party back. Absolutely," he said.

The PAC's uptick and Sanders' 2022 political ambitions, Huckabee said, are not intertwined.

"Sarah's running had nothing to do with our ramping up the PAC since we started doing that almost 2 years before she decided to run," Huckabee said.

For now, Huck PAC is focused on another governor's contest -- the one in California.

With the current officeholder, Gavin Newsom, facing a possible recall vote, Huck PAC has begun pouring money into the campaign.

A March 1 Sacramento Bee article said many non-Californians are donating to the cause, but "the biggest out-of-state spender, by far, is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee."

By that point, Huck PAC had already contributed $100,000 for the effort, the paper stated.

In an email, Huckabee said his PAC is "heavily invested in the recall race in CA for Gavin Newsom and he even called me out by name on TV and called out HuckPAC."

It's an acknowledgment Huckabee relished.

"That was an honor!" he said.


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