Hoosiers not filling Visclosky, Bayh campaign coffers

Lugar gets lion's share of war chest from Indiana
2009-10-04T00:00:00Z Hoosiers not filling Visclosky, Bayh campaign coffersChristine Kraly - christine.kraly@nwi.com, (219) 662-5335 nwitimes.com

Northwest Indiana voters may have a history of sending U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky back to Washington every two years, but a Times analysis shows most of the congressman's campaign war chest comes from donors well outside of the region and Indiana.

A Times review of campaign finance data for Visclosky and the Hoosier state's two U.S. senators revealed a glut of out-of-state cash flowing to Visclosky and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., while Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., gets the majority of his campaign cash from donors within his home state.

And campaign finance experts say some of the findings could give pause to voters who may question how high percentages of campaign cash from non-Hoosier donors could influence their federal legislators.

The Times review of 2008 and 2009 campaign finance records filed to date found:

* A little more than 2 percent of Visclosky's contributions came from within his constituency, Indiana's 1st Congressional District.

* 96 percent of Visclosky's donations came from donors in other states.

* Lugar is backed mainly by Hoosiers, with nearly three-quarters of his campaign donations coming from within the state.

* Bayh is supported heavily by the legal, health and finance fields, with about 15 percent of his overall war chest coming from Hoosier donors.

Outside Influence?

The three federal legislators have attained office with help from as far away as Sanibel Island, Fla., and China Spring, Texas.

The Times pored over thousands of individual donations to each lawmaker filed with the Federal Election Commission in 2008 and the first half of this year.

Those files show that only a sliver of Visclosky's roughly $1 million in donations to him and his political action committee during that time period came from Indiana sources.

About 4 percent -- $41,817 -- of the Merrillville Democrat's total donations came from Hoosier donors, with only 2.5 percent coming from the Northwest Indiana district he represents.

Looking farther back, about 13 percent of the $4.5 million Visclosky earned since 2004 has come from Northwest Indiana.

At least one campaign finance expert said voters may take umbrage with interests from so many states filling their lawmaker's political pockets.

"For some people, this will be a problem. For others, it won't be," said Dave Levinthal of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. "This is how politics is played for a lot of federal officeholders."

Levinthal's group lists Visclosky and Bayh among the nation's lawmakers receiving the majority of their 2009 dollars from outside their home states. Others include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.

"Does it say anything about a candidate who's receiving only a slim percentage from his or her state? Perhaps," Levinthal said. "That's something his or her constituents are going to ask of them."

Visclosky campaign spokesman David St. John noted that the 2008-09 data analyzed did not include upcoming region fundraisers or regional fundraising influence.

Visclosky received more than $160,000 from unions, many of whose headquarters are in Washington. Donations from such groups often are urged by locals, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, union spokesman Jim Spellane said.

Having served 25 years in Congress, "It is not surprising that he would attract campaign donations from people here in the district and elsewhere who like the job he is doing and want to see him continue his leadership," St. John said of Visclosky.

Bayh received about 15 percent of his $2.3 million from Hoosier sources. Bayh's donations came from donors spanning 36 states.

Melanie Sloan, executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, attributed some of Bayh's widespread draw to his presidential and vice presidential aspirations in the most recent election.

Bayh spokesman Brian Weiss said the senator has limited fundraising in his home state because of the lagging economy. Visclosky and Bayh are up for re-election next year.

Indiana's senior senator is a contrast to the other two lawmakers.

Given his smaller war chest and popularity across party lines, "Lugar doesn't worry about re-election very much," Sloan said.

About 73 percent, or $283,911, of Lugar's $391,000 came from Indiana donors.

Lugar spokesman Mark Hayes called the latest figures "not surprising." He said the numbers follow similar trends in the 2000-2006 election cycle, when 72 percent of the senator's funding came from Hoosiers.

Potential problems

A risky irony in politics, election experts say, is that campaigns often are funded by the very groups a politician regulates. Indiana's lawmakers are no exception.

Visclosky is a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, serves on the defense subcommittee and is chairman of the energy and water subcommittee.

According to FEC records, the same industries regulated by those committees help fuel Visclosky's campaign, with at least $192,575 coming from the energy industry and $278,700 coming from labor and defense combined from January 2008 through June 30.

"If he wasn't on defense appropriations, would they still be giving him money? No," Sloan said. "It's clear: People give money to people who have a financial interest."

St. John denied any sway, saying, "The record clearly shows that on every issue and on every activity he undertakes as a public servant, Congressman Visclosky always puts the people of Northwest Indiana first."

In the last year, Visclosky's donations have caught the eye of federal investigators who are building a case of possible campaign finance violations against the PMA Group, a defunct defense lobbying firm that once was Visclosky's top donation source.

Visclosky's connection to the firm has affected what had been his relatively spotless reputation for 12 terms.

"I think everybody always thinks, 'Congress is corrupt, except for my congressman,'" Sloan said. "Sometimes those congressmen go to jail, anyway."

Visclosky has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the PMA investigation.

Bayh's ties to the medical field also have come under increased scrutiny in recent months as he has grown more outspoken in the national health care debate. His wife, Susan Bayh, sits on the boards of four health insurance and pharmaceutical companies, which have a stake in what happens to health care on Capitol Hill.

Among Bayh's biggest donors are the health and insurance fields, contributing at least $269,000 to him since the start of 2008, campaign records show.

"Sen. Bayh's views on issues are shaped solely by what is in the best interests of Hoosiers," Weiss said. "Contributions have absolutely no impact on his decision making."

Levinthal said no matter a politician's vow, some voters could perceive a conflict and take their concerns to the ballot box.

"That's why you vote," Levinthal said. "If people ultimately believe that a certain politician is more beholden to interest groups or nonlocal constituents, then they certainly have the option to tell that person to stay at home permanently."

HOW WE DID IT:

The Times analyzed more than 2,500 individual receipts filed by the three Indiana legislators with the Federal Election Commission. The Times sorted and analyzed the data by the donor's name, city, state, contribution amount and employer, where available. See the complete database of who gave what to U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky and Sens. Evan Bayh and Dick Lugar at nwi.com.

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