In his quest to remake the Senate Republican caucus in his own image, Tea Party kingmaker Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has thrown some serious cash at a conservative super PAC that has attacked a Republican House member and other GOP candidates for office.
Last month, DeMint's campaign committee donated $500,000 to "Club for Growth Action," a super PAC committed to electing pro-free market Republicans. DeMint's donation accounted for 28 percent of the $1.8 million that the super PAC collected in February, according to Federal Election Commission documents released Monday.
To date, Club for Growth Action has reported spending more than $560,000 on political advertisements, all of them negative. The group has attacked House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), as well as U.S. Senate candidates Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, the state's former GOP governor, and Republican David Dewhurst in Texas, the Lone Star State's current lieutenant governor.
DeMint's leadership PAC has already endorsed Thompson's opponent in Wisconsin, Mark Neumann of Wisconsin, and Dewhurst's opponent in Texas, Ted Cruz. It has also endorsed Don Stenberg of Nebraska and Josh Mandel of Ohio -- both of whom have also been endorsed by the Club for Growth.
"Senator DeMint strongly supports several of the candidates the Club for Growth is backing this year, and this contribution will help the Club push them on to victory," DeMint spokesman Matt Hoskins told iWatch News.
Both DeMint and the Club for Growth favor Republican candidates who favor limited government, lower taxes and pro-growth economic policies. Their staunch support for "the right kind of Republicans," as Hoskins calls it, has frequently led to infighting with GOP party leaders.
During the 2010 midterm election, DeMint and the Club for Growth supported some of the highest profile Tea Party-backed GOP U.S. Senate candidates: Sharron Angle of Nevada, Ken Buck of Colorado, Marco Rubio of Florida, Mike Lee of Utah, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Joe Miller of Alaska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who resigned as the head of the Club for Growth to run for the seat. DeMint also backed Republican Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, although the Club for Growth did not.
Rubio, Lee, Johnson, Paul and Toomey were all elected to the Senate, while the others went down to defeat.
More moderate Republicans were felled in several GOP primaries, such as Nevada, Colorado and Delaware, where Democrats ultimately retained their hotly contested seats -- and thus, retained control of the U.S. Senate, much to the chagrin of several Republican leaders. But victories in places such as Florida, Kentucky and Utah heartened conservative activists who rejected the candidates pushed by the GOP establishment.
DeMint's half-million-dollar donation is legal thanks to changes in the federal campaign finance landscape in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 ruling Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Federal rules limit campaign committees such as DeMint's from donating more than $5,000 per year to a traditional political action committee. Most PACs typically pool together donations from an array of sources and then dole out checks to candidates -- giving no more than $5,000 per election to any one beneficiary. They can also donate only $2,000 per election to another candidate's official campaign committee.
But in the wake of Citizens United, and other federal court rulings and actions by the FEC, PACs that only make expenditures that are not coordinated with candidates and do not donate any money directly to politicians are allowed to accept unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, unions and other groups -- including candidates' campaign committees.
These spending-oriented groups are frequently called super PACs.
"The reality of super PACs is that they are closely tied to candidates," Paul Ryan, an attorney at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, which favors campaign finance regulations, told iWatch News. "And it's not illegal to have close relationships."
This worries some political observers.
"The more money going through congressional candidates and officeholders, the greater the danger of corruption and illegal coordination," election law expert Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine said.
DeMint is not the first federal politician to contribute money from his campaign to a super PAC, but he's making a bigger splash than anyone who has come before him.
For instance, last year, the campaign of Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) donated $5,000 to a liberal super PAC called the "America Votes Action Fund." Her colleague Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) donated $1,000 from his campaign war chest to the same group.
Meanwhile, after her unsuccessful Senate bid in Nevada, Angle donated more than $9,500 of her leftover campaign funds to a super PAC that she launched called "Our Voice PAC." And after losing in her Senate race in Delaware, O'Donnell donated $142,000 from her campaign to the super PAC she created, which is called "ChristinePAC."
DeMint, who was elected to his second Senate term in November 2010 with more than 61 percent of the vote, raised $1.9 million in 2011. He ended the year with $1.7 million cash on hand, according to the most recent campaign finance reports his campaign has filed with the Federal Election Commission. He won't stand for re-election again until 2016.
That's on top of the nearly $5.3 million that his leadership PAC has pulled in through the end of February, which is more than any other leadership PAC has raised this election cycle, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. He has used this PAC, which cannot directly aid his own re-election efforts, to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars of bundled contributions from conservative donors to favored candidates.
Campaign finance observers say it's striking that DeMint used campaign funds, which must be raised under strict contribution limits of just $2,500 per person per election, to contribute to a super PAC, which has no such limits.
"Typically candidates work so hard to raise money under the contribution limits, the last thing they want to do is give it away to someone else," Ryan, of the Campaign Legal Center, said.
Rachael Marcus contributed to this report.
Follow The Center for Public Integrity on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Publici