WASHINGTON – Even as she runs for a third term this year in Minnesota, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been spreading donations to Democratic candidates, parties and political action committees around the country.
Klobuchar employs what’s known as a leadership PAC to give to fellow Democrats. Her Follow the North Star PAC has donated $337,500 in the current election cycle, aiding Democrats as they try to win back Congress and make other political gains around the country — and start the process of deciding who will take on President Donald Trump in 2020.
Members of Congress often create leadership PACs separate from their own individual campaign accounts in order to contribute money to others in the party. It’s a common tool to lay groundwork for higher political aspirations, bigger leadership roles or simply to build capital with colleagues. A roster of presumed contenders for the 2020 race all have leadership PACs, including Klobuchar’s fellow Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, along with Vice President Joe Biden.
Minnesota’s senior senator has given $45,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, along with $5,000 each to the state Democratic parties in Iowa, Florida, Pennsylvania, Montana, Indiana, Virginia, Michigan, North Dakota and Rhode Island. And she’s given the maximum donations ($10,000) to more politically vulnerable Midwestern Democrats in states won by Trump: Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
Klobuchar’s public role in the Senate’s high-profile confirmation debate over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was a boost to her national profile, and her political success in a Midwestern state has landed her on lists of potential 2020 candidates. Her standard response this year is that she’s focused on Minnesota.
Klobuchar’s leadership PAC has donated less than a few of the leading Democratic prospects, including Warren, Booker, Harris, Gillibrand and Biden. Her giving has exceeded that of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“Sen. Klobuchar has helped other senators and candidates in many ways, including speaking recently at party dinners in North Dakota, Wisconsin and Kansas,” a campaign spokeswoman, Andrea Mokros, said in a statement. “Over the years she’s been invited to help many candidates in redder states.”
Republican Jim Newberger, a state representative from Becker, is challenging Klobuchar in next week’s election. A Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll taken in mid-October found Klobuchar with a sizable lead over Newberger.
Klobuchar has spread funds around at home as well: She gave $10,000 each to U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, to Dan Feehan in the First Congressional District and Angie Craig in the Second District, and $5,000 to Joe Radinovich in the Eighth District. Dean Phillips, who is running in the Third District, is not taking campaign contributions from federal lawmakers.
Such donations will not have a major financial impact on the midterm elections. Leadership PACs have given $51 million to political candidates in an election cycle expected to cost more than $5 billion. But they can matter a great deal to individual lawmakers trying to cultivate influence.
“It’s a good thing to be keeping an eye on … They can be a tell as to a member’s ambitions,” said Andrew Mayersohn, a researcher at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C.
Klobuchar’s leadership PAC giving ranks 19th among other Democratic senators; it’s roughly in the middle out of all 504 leadership PACs tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics. Major donors include employees of the crop insurer NAU Country Insurance Co., the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, Starkey Hearing Technologies and the University of Minnesota.
Former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken’s PAC has given a little more than Klobuchar’s in this election cycle, even though he stopped making donations since stepping down in January in the face of sexual misconduct allegations. Franken’s PAC is still sitting on $1.1 million. His appointed replacement, Smith, is running in a special election to keep the seat and is one of a minority of senators who do not have a leadership PAC.
George Mason University Professor Jennifer Victor, who specializes in congressional politics, said that other high-profile Democrats with more activity in their leadership funds than Klobuchar come from states with more access to wealth than Minnesota. And Victor noted that traditional indicators of a candidate’s viability for office turned out to be wrong in 2016.
But looking at leadership PACs can give insight into who’s vying for leadership positions and investing their contributions strategically, according to Victor. She noted that lawmakers give to others to help their own policy goals, run for higher office or attain power for some other reason.
“Raising money is just how the game is played if you want to pursue any of those ambitions,” she said.