A leadership PAC is a political action committee that is often established by current and former members of Congress as well as other prominent political figures. Leadership PACs are designed for two things: to make money and to make friends, both of which are crucial to ambitious politicians looking to advance their careers.
Leadership PACs are used to fund expenses that are ineligible to be paid by campaign committees or congressional offices. Those costs can include travel to raise a politician’s profile, for instance. Democratic leadership PACs are also used to fund fellow Democrats’ campaigns, especially threatened incumbents or challengers trying to win seats that were previously held by the GOP. Politicians often use their PACs to donate to other candidates because they are considering seeking a leadership position in Congress, a higher office, or leverage within their own party as they show off their fundraising ability.
Both Democrats and Republicans operate these PACs, which can accept money from other PACs and from individuals. Individuals can contribute up to $5,000 per year to a member’s leadership PAC, even if they have already donated the maximum to that member’s campaign.
Contributions to Republican leadership PACs have risen every year since 2008, as the GOP won control of the House, Senate and Presidency until losing the House in 2018. Since 1990, Republican leadership PACs have overwhelmingly outraised Democratic ones. They gave out $45 million to Republican candidates in 2018.
The largest contributor of these PACs was Majority Committee PAC in 2018. Majority Committee PAC, which is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) leadership PAC, gave out $2.5 million to Republican causes. Prosperity Action, former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wisc.) leadership PAC, contributed $2.3 million in 2018.
The top recipient of leadership PAC funds in 2018 was former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who received $620,599. Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.), who lost his reelection campaign, was the top recipient among House candidates. He received $546,100 from Republican leadership PACs. Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) received $501,200 in an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate (she would be appointed to fill out the remainder of Sen. John Kyl’s appointment). In fact, of the top five recipients of leadership PAC money, only two, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), won their respective elections.