Capitol Alert

How Mike Pence is trying to save California Republicans

Mike Pence sworn in as vice president

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas administers the oath of office to Mike Pence on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.
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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas administers the oath of office to Mike Pence on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.

The most consequential part of Vice President Mike Pence's visit to Southern California wasn't his border wall photo-op in Calexico Monday morning, it's who he rubbed shoulders with behind closed doors later in the day.

Pence and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield hosted a "roundtable discussion" at a five-star hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Monday. For a donation of between $10,000 and $100,000, some of the party's biggest donors got the chance to schmooze with two of the most powerful Republicans in Washington. And thanks to a special fundraising mechanism and increasingly lax campaign finance rules, most of that money will get funneled to nearly two dozen vulnerable House colleagues — including California Republican Reps. David Valadao, Jeff Denham and Steve Knight.

The Beverly Hills gathering is just the latest in a series of high-dollar events on which Pence and McCarthy have collaborated in an effort to save the party's teetering House majority. Without their help, congressmen Valadao of Hanford and Knight of Palmdale would be struggling to out-raise their Democratic challengers, as the backlash to President Trump fuels an explosion of liberal giving.

The proceeds from Monday's event, as well as a Sunday brunch McCarthy hosted in Malibu, go to a joint fundraising committee called Protect the House, which benefits McCarthy and Pence's political action committees, the National Republican Congressional Committee, McCarthy's reelection campaign, and 22 fellow House Republicans' campaigns.

"The reason it’s so powerful is it allows (Pence and McCarthy) to ask for a big contribution" from their wealthy connections, beyond what campaign finance laws allow them to accept for their own committees, said Larry Noble, senior director & general counsel at the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center. Pence and McCarthy can then pass along portions of those donations to other candidates that the donors "might not normally give to."

In addition, McCarthy can turn around and use the money he's raised via the joint fundraising committee to give even more money to his House colleagues. McCarthy's Majority Committee PAC, for example, has donated $10,000 to Knight, Valadao and Denham, who represents a Modesto-area district. According to Noble, that's perfectly legal as long as none of the donations that McCarthy's PAC received via the joint fundraiser were earmarked to go to those particular candidates.

It's a win-win for all involved. For the men and women writing the five- and six-figure checks, they get credit for their giving from influential leaders like Pence and McCarthy, which tends to be their top priority, according to Noble. "They don’t really care where the money ends up," he said. On the flip side, Pence and McCarthy earn the appreciation of their Republican colleagues for steering money their way. That's particularly important for McCarthy as he vies to replace Paul Ryan as speaker next year, which will require winning a vote of his fellow House Republicans.

Candidates like Valadao and Knight should be particularly grateful. In total, Valadao has received $787,000 through March 31 via Protect the House and a a second Pence-McCarthy joint fundraising vehicle, California Victory 2018. It was set up last fall to benefit the five California Republicans defending House districts Democrat Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential race. Knight has received $847,000 in transfers from the two committees, recordsshow. In total, Protect the House and California Victory 2018 have raised more than $7 million through the end of March for all the campaign committees involved.

And Pence and McCarthy have succeeded in marshaling some of the party's most prolific givers to open their wallets for their fundraising efforts. Reclusive financier and President Trump ally Robert Mercer gave $366,100 to Protect the House in February. Barbara Grimm-Marshall, co-owner of Bakersfield-based Grimmway Farms, the world's leading carrot grower, chipped in $371,500 in March.

California Victory 2018 has only reported one donation this year — $150,000 from Texas energy company Valero's political action committee. But the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, two California Indian tribes with large gaming operations in the state, each gave $100,000 to the fundraising committee last fall. Trump backer Elliott Broidy and his wife, Robyn, each donated $50,000 to California Victory 2018 in November. Earlier this month, news leaked that Broidy had impregnated a former Playboy model and enlisted Trump lawyer Michael Cohen to help buy her silence. Broidy has since resigned his post as national deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee's finance committee.

It's only relatively recently that political donors have been able to cut checks for a hundred thousand dollars or more, as did some who attended Monday's roundtable in Beverly Hills. Until 2014, U.S. law capped the amount an individual could give to all federal candidates at $48,600. The Supreme Court struck down that cap in April 2014, arguing it was a violation of the First Amendment.

Joint fundraising committees have "really exploded since the Supreme Court struck down the aggregate limit" on campaign donations, said Noble. And for House Republicans in competitive races in 2018, it may be their saving grace.

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