From left: Democratic candidate Conor Lamb, photo via conorlamb.com; Republican candidate Rick Saccone, photo via ricksaccone.com.
By Alex Kotch
Millions of dollars in outside spending have engulfed Tuesday’s heated special election to fill Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, and 86 percent has benefited the Republican candidate, state Rep. Rick Saccone. Providing a sizeable chunk of the money behind this election’s spending is a very familiar conservative donor family that would like to keep a small-government conservative in the district: the billionaire Koch family.
While Saccone has raised a fraction of the campaign cash that his opponent—Democrat Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old attorney—has, deep-pocketed outside groups have poured money into advertisements and mailers, much of it attacking Lamb. Some television ads financed by the National Republican Congressional Committee distorted Lamb’s record as a prosecutor in hopes of giving their underperforming candidate an edge as Tuesday’s election nears.
As of March 12, the top six outside spending groups in the race have all sided with Saccone, accounting for $10.3 million—or 84 percent of total independent spending—according to campaign finance data compiled by ProPublica. Overall, including campaign spending, the race has cost roughly $16 million; for Saccone, outside money has accounted for 94 percent of total spending in his favor, while for Lamb, who raised considerably more for his campaign, only 36 percent of the money benefiting him was spent by independent groups.
Brothers Charles and David Koch, who co-own a giant industrial conglomerate, are known for their prolific political spending and operate a large network of donors and advocacy groups that help shape right-wing politics. The Koch political network plans to spend $400 million on the 2018 elections.
Since late November, Charles Koch, his wife Elizabeth, son Chase, and Koch Industries have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to committees involved in the PA-18 race.
The Koch network pushed hard for the GOP tax cut bill last year, spending $20 million pressuring lawmakers to give corporations and the richest Americans enormous tax breaks. After Speaker Paul Ryan passed the House tax bill, Charles and his wife Elizabeth donated nearly $500,000 to the speaker’s joint fundraising committee, Team Ryan, most of which was specifically earmarked to be transferred to the general, legal and building accounts of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). The NRCC is the biggest outside spender in the Saccone-Lamb race, having dished out more than $3.5 million on ads praising Saccone or attacking Lamb. Since the Koch donations, Team Ryan has sent $1.6 million over to the NRCC.
Chase Koch donated directly to three different NRCC accounts on December 31: $102,000 to the group’s recount fund, another $102,000 to its building fund, and $34,000 to its general fund, for a total of more than $237,000. Also pitching in was the Koch Industries political action committee, which donated $45,000 to the NRCC on December 15.
The NRCC financed multiple ads attacking Lamb for being weak on crime, ads that are “flimsy and misleading,” according to FactCheck.org.
The Koch network’s most prominent political advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, has also thrown some money behind Saccone. The group has produced mailers and digital ads to help him beat Lamb, spending roughly $43,000 through March 9.
Lamb has criticized the enormous outside spending against him, which he says is dishonest. “Dark money” is distorting the race, he reportedly said, telling supporters at a February 28 rally. “We hear they’re going to spend almost $1 million every single day until the election. . . . They’ve lied about my record. They’ve lied about my opponent’s record. They’re trying to drown out the truth and drown out your voice.”
For the Kochs and their business interests, Saccone is a good bet. The small-government conservative has touted his support for the recent tax cuts, and outside groups have bought ads attacking Lamb for his opposition to the cuts. “We had a great tax bill that we just passed,” Saccone told supporters. “That’s helping not only the coal industry but other small businesses and medium-sized businesses and workers. You’ve seen a little bump in your pay. Some people are seeing more money in your 401(k).”
The Koch network’s most prominent political advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), praised Saccone in 2016, naming him one of Pennsylvania’s “Friends of Economic Prosperity.” Saccone was one of 30 state lawmakers that AFP lauded for taking “votes that have objectively lowered the tax burden and given Pennsylvanians greater freedom to work, increase their standard of living, and save more of their hard-earned money.”
The “greater freedom to work” to which AFP refers is so-called right-to-work legislation, intended to ban union contracts that require workers they represent to pay dues, which Saccone supports. Pennsylvania does not currently have a right-to-work law in place, but Saccone has indicated that he would back such a measure. Over eight years in the state House, Saccone “consistently voted against fair pensions . . . workers’ rights and workers’ comp,” according to the president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. The Republican, competing to represent a heavily unionized district, softly defended his position on Saturday, while calling himself a supporter of unions. In 2014, he received an endorsement from the Pennsylvania Right to Work PAC.
Ending unionization has been a key priority of the libertarian Koch brothers. The national right-to-work push has strong financial ties to the Koch brothers, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate bill mill that brings together conservative state lawmakers and business interests to craft “model” legislation, receives significant Koch funding and has long advocated right-to-work legislation. Similarly, AFP firmly supports such laws.
Saccone, who has positioned himself as “the only pro-coal candidate” in the race, also sides with the Kochs on environmental issues. Environmental advocacy nonprofit Clean Water Action gave Saccone a 9 percent rating on its 2015–2016 legislative scorecard, citing his votes to expand hydraulic fracturing, weaken clean water requirements, and delay plans to cut carbon emissions. While Lamb’s platform promotes natural gas drilling, Saccone is surely the better candidate for the Kochs, whose corporate conglomerate includes oil and gas drilling, pipeline, and chemical businesses. Koch Industries has an abysmal pollution record, having had to pay over $736 million in fines for numerous environmental violations since 2000.
Emails to the Saccone and Lamb campaigns were not returned.
The victor will almost immediately have to begin running for the November election in a new district, because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the state’s current congressional map as an unconstitutional, partisan gerrymander in January. If Lamb wins, he’s expected to run in the 17th District, while Saccone may run in the 14th.