Elections ’98: Pro-israel Pacs Maintain Pattern of Contributions to Candidates

Democratic congressional candidates have received two-thirds of all contributions from pro-Israel political action committees in the 1998 election cycle, even though Republicans have the edge on special interest money across the board.

Democrats traditionally have been the recipients of most dollars flowing from pro-Israel interest groups. Before the Republicans took over both houses of Congress in 1994, Democrats were taking in nearly $3 for every $1 the Republicans received.

The last election, however, saw the money begin to shift toward the Republican legislators for the first time since the Federal Election Commission made data available. In 1996, Republicans took in a record number of contributions, as pro-Israel PACs gave 60 percent of their outlays to Democrats and 40 percent to Republicans.

While some may have expected a tilting of the balance even further in favor of the Republicans, campaign finance experts predict that when reporting is completed, Democratic and Republican incumbents will have taken in roughly the same proportion of pro-Israel funding as they did two years ago.

The historic Democratic leanings of most pro-Israel givers has clearly had an impact on distributions.

But Democrats continue to maintain their edge because among incumbents who have been supportive of Israel, there are more Democrats than Republicans engaged in competitive election races this year — and therefore more Democrats are in need of PAC funding.

The overall level of campaign contributions from pro-Israel PACs, meanwhile, has remained consistent over the last few election cycles after experiencing a sharp drop-off in the early part of the decade.

So far, 33 pro-Israel PACs, some of which also consider domestic issues when distributing their funds, have contributed $1.9 million to congressional candidates with a few weeks to go before the election, according to an analysis of FEC data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based, non-partisan organization that analyzes the role of money in politics. Roughly the same number of PACs contributed about $2.3 million to candidates for both the 1994 and 1996 elections.

Contributions from pro-Israel PACs ranked third among all ideological and single-issue PACs, which overall have given 60 percent of their funds to Republicans and 40 percent to Democrats. Only leadership PACs and candidate committees, which are run by members of Congress and other political figures to distribute funds, have outpaced the fund-raising of pro-Israel PACs.

PAC contributions represent only a small part of Jewish political giving. Millions more flow from individuals and other channels directly to candidates and political parties. But PACs remain the only reliable way to track where Jews are giving their money.

The bulk of Jewish campaign contributions and campaign contributions as a whole comes in the form of “soft money” — unregulated contributions that go directly to the parties. Although there is no easy way of tracking what comes in and where it goes, Republican and Democratic party finance officials say that many of their major donors are Jews.

While the Democrats maintain an edge in pro-Israel PAC funding, most senior Republicans who have consistently supported Israel and who hold key leadership positions or committee chairmanships have been rewarded with solid financial support from the pro-Israel PACs. But, spread across the entire field of GOP candidates, the level of support is far from comparable to what Democrats enjoyed when they were in the majority.

The largest pro-Israel PAC, National PAC, has bucked the trend. Through Sept. 1 it had given about 60 percent of its $267,000 in outlays to Republicans and 40 percent to Democrats.

Chuck Brooks, NATPAC’s executive director and treasurer, said his committee’s contributions are consistent with the make-up of Congress, where there are more Republicans than Democrats holding seats on the appropriations committees and other important congressional panels.

Brooks said the overall bent among pro-Israel PACs toward Democrats can be attributed in part to the fact that “our community is still heavily Democratic, and a lot of people still don’t have the ability to be bipartisan.”

There is, however, some anecdotal evidence of increased support for Republicans in current campaigns.

Morris Amitay, founder and treasurer of the pro-Israel Washington PAC, said the Clinton administration’s pressure tactics toward Israel earlier in the year in trying to advance the Middle East peace process has given Republican candidates the opportunity to voice unequivocal support for Israel.

“People are looking to those Republicans who have been more outspoken on behalf of Israel,” said Amitay, whose committee had distributed $122,400 through Sept. 1, most of it to Democrats.

The contributions from the pro-Israel PACs are finding their way into several tight races across the country, as well as a handful of secure contests that involve congressional leaders of both parties with records showing solid support for Israel.

Among the leading recipients, the funds are more or less evenly distributed between Jewish and non-Jewish members of Congress.

According to FEC statistics through last month, the top recipient of pro-Israel PAC funding in the Senate has been Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), taking in more than $137,000, followed by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.), all of whom have received more than $60,000.

In the House, Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) has led the way with $15,500, followed by Reps. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.), Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), and Reps. David Obey (D-Wisc.) and Sander Levin (D-Mich.), all of whom have received upwards of $10,000.

PACs can donate a maximum of $5,000 to each congressional candidate for the primaries and a maximum of $5,000 for a general election, for a total of $10,000 per election cycle. Most PACs generally favor incumbents with a proven record on their issues, and only occasionally fund challengers.

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