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Pooled donations add $33M punch to fall elections

Fredreka Schouten

WASHINGTON A growing number of special-interest groups are bypassing strict limits on donations to congressional candidates by combining contributions, giving them greater clout in November's midterm elections.

So far this year, at least 117 PACs, political parties and other fundraising committees have collected $32.7 million in contributions to pass on to candidates — nearly double the $17.4 million such committees funneled to candidates in the 2006 midterm elections, Federal Election Commission records show.

Under federal law, a political action committee cannot donate more than $5,000 of its own money to a candidate for a primary or general election.

There are no limits on how much a PAC can forward to candidates from other donors, though. The activity covers the ideological spectrum from the conservative, anti-tax Club for Growth to EMILY's List, which raises money to elect female Democrats who support abortion rights.

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The practice is legal, but it gives these fundraising committees a big voice in fall contests that will decide which party controls Congress, say experts such as Paul Ryan of the non-profit Campaign Legal Center.

"If I'm a candidate, I'm going to pay much closer attention to a donor or a political action committee that shows up at my door with a million-dollar contribution rather than a $2,400 contribution," Ryan said. "It's a way ... to have increased influence in Washington."

Since Jan. 1, 2009, for instance, the Club for Growth has tapped its members for $3.8 million that it has passed on to candidates, including nearly $850,000 for Republican Pat Toomey, the club's former president, who is running for the Senate in Pennsylvania. "If you want to make a difference in elections, this is the best way to do it," Club for Growth Executive Director David Keating said.

Other active players include Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., whose Senate Conservatives Fund has sent more than $1 million to 12 GOP candidates in this election, including Colorado's Ken Buck, who captured his party's Senate nomination last week. The PAC funneled more than $176,200 to Buck for the primary — more than 10% of Buck's total fundraising through the end of June.

DeMint "is trying to find principled leaders who will stand up to the big spenders in both parties in Washington," his spokesman, Matt Hoskins, said. "He's backing up his endorsements with cash and fundraising. For an underdog candidate, that's a big deal."

Among other fundraising committees ramping up activity: the JStreetPAC, a liberal Jewish group that has jumped into political giving as it tries to promote a "two-state solution" to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By the end of July, the PAC had raised more than $725,000 for 61 candidates and is on track to hand out $1 million by Election Day, spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick said. That's up from $578,000 in 2008, the PAC's first election.

Democrat Joe Sestak, running for the Senate in Pennsylvania against Toomey, is among the recipients this year, taking in $100,000 in contributions raised by JStreet, she said.

Spitalnick said the bundling shows "candidates that they have strong financial support in the Jewish community and among other friends of Israel should they stand up for pro-Israel, pro-peace positions."

Others have created joint fundraising committees that allow them to bundle money for favored candidates. They include Colorado Rep. Jared Polis, a freshman Democrat who made millions on Internet start-ups before being elected in 2008. He has sent more than $500,000 to other lawmakers, including freshmen in tough races.

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