How Do Political Action Committees Work? - National Democratic Training Committee

It’s impossible to operate in the political sphere for long before Political Action Committees, aka PACs, come up in conversation. And while you probably hear about them all the time, you might still wonder, “How do Political Action Committees work?” but are a bit embarrassed to ask.

Or maybe you’re running for office and are curious as to how they can help your election. Don’t worry — you’re not alone.

The truth is, PACs aren’t as complicated as they seem. And once you know how to navigate them, they can be really helpful for your campaign.

In this post you’ll learn:

  • What PACs are
  • Why you should work with them
  • How to establish a relationship with a PAC

What Exactly is a PAC?

In our Political Dictionary, we provide the following definitions:

  • Political Action Committee (PAC): an organization established by a group of people, labor union, corporation, or other special interest to support a shared agenda. PACs raise money to fund their political activities and may make direct contributions to certain campaigns. State PACs are governed by state laws while federal PACs operate under the rules of the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
  • Super PAC: an organization that can receive unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, and labor unions. They cannot contribute directly to candidates, nor can they coordinate activities. Most notably, they can call for the success or defeat of specific candidates.

The donation limits and what qualifies as a PAC will vary from state to state. Before you solicit a PAC, always check with your state rules regarding campaign finance.

PACs sometimes get a bad rap, but not all PACs are inherently bad, and they may be able to provide much needed help and resources for your campaign.

PACs can be school teachers working together to improve education, environmentalists collaborating to save wetlands, or even social workers trying to improve services to kids and families in need.

Of course, they can also be corporations advocating for different tax or pollution laws, or even people championing the protection of second amendment rights. Whether or not these PACs are “bad” depends on your point of view.

How Do Political Action Committees Work?

A PAC can work in direct coordination with a candidate and is subject to strict regulations by the FEC or state law, meaning the organization receives limited funds from groups or individuals.

A super PAC, on the other hand, can receive unlimited contributions; it cannot, however, work in direct coordination with a specific political candidate.

A super PAC influences politics by providing independent expenditures. Most campaigns and candidates never interact with a super PAC. (Don’t worry, we have a post about independent expenditures coming soon. It will review what they are and how to navigate them. Make sure you follow our Medium blog so you don’t miss it.)

As a local- or state-level candidate, you’ll focus on earning the support of PACs in your state who may be interested in your race.

Getting Started With PACs

At NDTC, we stress that building relationships is key to winning any race. That’s why we’ve written two blogs and published an entire online course about it. This includes PACs.

The first step is to identify which PACs may be interested in your race. We have a list of national PACs here to help you get your research started. Keep in mind that this is by no means a complete list, and be sure to do more research into your local PACs! You can also ask other elected and party leaders for advice if you don’t know which (if any) to target. It is entirely possible there may not be any for your race. That’s okay. What is not okay is letting support go to your opponent because you were unaware of their interest.

Once you know which PACs may be interested, reach out and introduce yourself. A warm introduction is always better. If someone in your network or your local or state party can make an intro via email or even in-person, it helps to get your foot in the door.

If you can’t find a connection, check their website for contact information. There’s likely an email you can use, or maybe even a phone number you can call. Sometimes the first step to establishing a relationship is being the first to reach out. It might take some patience, but it can be well worth it.

Every PAC has a process for earning support. Most have you complete a questionnaire about their issues. Always treat your answers as if they’re available to the public.

Here’s a pro-tip: You don’t have to answer every questionnaire you receive. Many candidates ignore those groups they know will be hostile to them. Use your limited time wisely!

How Can PACs Help My Campaign?

If the PAC decides to endorse your candidacy, congratulations! Now it’s time to think about how they can best help you win your race.

There are several ways a PAC can help:

  • Communicate to their members in your district about their endorsement.
  • Volunteers to help you knock on doors, make calls, or send text messages.
  • A financial contribution.
  • A specific in-kind contribution that only the PAC can provide — for example, the local carpenters union could help build large signs.

What to ask for is up to you, but we strongly encourage you to ask for advice. Ask how they have helped others in the past and what was most effective.

Should I Target PACs for My Campaign?

This is ultimately up to you. There are a lot of campaigns who are not taking “Corporate PAC” money. Notice the “corporate” qualifier. Unions, liberal advocacy groups, and others are not included.

The world of money and politics can seem really complicated, and understanding how Political Action Committees work and how they can help you is no different. The key is not to be afraid of them and approach the ones you are targeting intentionally.

Need more help? Our Earning Union Support course can get you started. Enroll today!

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