BOSTON — As she runs for president, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren has pledged not to accept money from lobbyists, political action committees or special interest groups.
Warren, one of 22 Democrats seeking the party's nomination to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020, has sworn off swanky fundraisers, big checks from wealthy donors and the flow of PAC money that typically permeates a presidential campaign. The pledge is a key plank of her campaign, and she references it in speeches and fundraising pitches.
"You won’t see Elizabeth take a dime from federally registered lobbyists, corporate PACs, or PACs of any kind," her campaign boasted in a recent email blast to supporters, urging them to contribute. "You won’t see Elizabeth cozy up to billionaires and nudge them to dump buckets of cash into a super PAC for her."
A review of Warren's reports to the Federal Election Commission suggests that pledge is disingenuous.
Warren's presidential campaign collected $6 million in the first quarter of this year, banking 213,000 contributions from 135,000 donors, with an average donation of $28, her campaign said.
She also transferred into her account $10 million in leftover campaign cash from her run for Senate last year, and a political committee she operates with other candidates, according to disclosures filed with the FEC.
Those two previous campaign accounts included about $400,000 in PAC contributions made by labor unions, trade groups and other special interests over the past two years. Among the contributors were the American Federation of Teachers, EMILY's List, Utility Workers of America, the AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and the United Auto Workers.
Warren has moved about $3.8 million in contributions from her political committee, the Elizabeth Warren Action Fund, into the main account for her Senate campaign, Elizabeth Warren for MA, which was later funneled to her presidential primary account, the FEC reports show.
The transfers, combined with her individual contributions, boosted her haul to $16.4 million as of March 31.
Others also using leftovers
Government watchdogs note that Warren isn't the only Democrat partially fueling a presidential campaign with leftover contributions from other races.
"Some of them are transferring huge sums of money into their accounts from other related accounts," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington D.C.-based group that tracks spending by federal candidates. "It can amount to a big portion of their initial receipts, and certainly some of it is PAC money."
She points out that Warren hasn't done a lot of high-dollar fundraising or accepted a lot of PAC money throughout her political career, compared to other lawmakers.
Still, Krumholz said, it's a "fair question" to ask if Warren is "trying to have her cake and eat it too" by not returning the previous PAC contributions.
"Some might see that as hypocritical for her to continue using it, while others might say it's unrealistic that she would return all of that money," she said.
Krumholz added, "It might be preferable for her campaign to return the funds rather than have to respond to criticism that she is being hypocritical."
Warren's campaign didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.
To be sure, Warren's campaign had not held a fundraiser since the launch of her presidential exploratory committee and has not taken money directly from a PAC. The strategy apparently cost her a finance director, Michael Pratt, who reportedly resigned last month over objections to her policy of rejecting fundraisers.
Who's getting money
Warren has publicly acknowledged that her approach will come at a cost — that she will be out-raised by other candidates. The prediction appears to have come true, according to the latest fundraising totals, which show Warren trailing other Democrats.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders raised $18.2 million from 525,000 donors in the fundraising quarter that ended March 31; California Sen. Kamala Harris reported $12 million from 138,000 donors; former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas raised $9.4 million from 218,000 contributions; and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg drummed up $7 million from 158,550 donors.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who jumped into the race last week, raised $6.3 million in the first 24 hours following his announcement, according to his campaign.
Warren, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in 2012 after defeating Republican Scott Brown, launched her presidential bid in February at a rally in downtown Lawrence.
Recent polls have placed her in the middle of the heap of Democratic candidates, with the first presidential primary in New Hampshire less than a year away.
Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communication, said her use of PAC money from leftover campaign cash "could come back to bite her," especially if the primary race heats up and other candidates "decide to make an issue of it."
He said Warren "probably didn't have a choice" but to shun the glitzy fundraisers and rely on small donations, given her presidential campaign platform.
"She's running against Wall Street and big money in politics," he said. "If you play that card, and take money from wealthy donors, you're just going to be seen as a hypocrite."
Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University, points out that if Warren wins the nomination, Democratic-backed super PACs will drop tens of millions of dollars in advertising to support her.
She "would be a fool" to reject that, he added, lest she be vastly outspent by GOP-oriented super PACs.
"The real money in general elections is in super PACs, which can spend unlimited amounts," he said. "And the reality is she can't swear that off, because she doesn't control it."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org