The coronavirus pandemic has slowed down much of Washington.
The halls of the Capitol appear empty. Charlie Palmer Steak, a restaurant that usually serves power lunches to the well-connected, is temporarily shuttered. Lobbyists are meeting on Zoom and other similar platforms.
But the political fundraising machine grinds on.
The political action committees operated by the nation’s two largest credit union trade groups, the Credit Union National Association and the National Association of Federally Insured Credit Unions, continue to fuel that machine with millions of dollars in campaign contributions to House and Senate candidates across the country.
By the end of July, three months before the Nov. 3 election, CULAC, the campaign committee for CUNA, had contributed $3.05 million to candidates for the House and Senate and has more than $1.9 million still on hand.
The contributions made CULAC the sixth most generous PAC, according to an analysis of contributions by June 26 that was conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics.
During the 2017-2018 election cycle, CULAC contributed more than $5.1 million to candidates.
NAFCU operates a much smaller PAC. By the end of July, the group’s political committee had contributed $223,000 to House and Senate candidates, with more than $516,000 on hand at the end of July.
In the 2017-218 election cycle, NAFCU’s political committee contributed $345,000 to House and Senate candidates.
Both PACs contribute largely to incumbents in races in which they decide that the candidate’s record supports credit unions.
NAFCU officials declined repeated requests to discuss their political activities.
Trey Hawkins, CUNA’s vice president of political affairs, said that CUNA having such a large political operation gives it a distinct advantage. “We’re fortunate that we have a PAC that’s large enough that we can contribute to every candidate that we want to support,” he said.
Hawkins said that CUNA works with state credit union leagues in selecting which candidate to support. “Every contribution we make has to have the approval of CUNA and the leagues,” he said.
CUNA raises money for CULAC, in part through automatic payroll deductions from credit union employees. The average donation to the PAC is $70, Hawkins said.
In addition to direct contributions to candidates, CULAC and the state leagues spend independently of candidates.
CULAC made its first independent expenditure this election cycle on behalf of Florida State House Majority Leader Dane Eagle, one of nine candidates who ran for the GOP nomination to replace Rep. Francis Rooney, who is retiring. CULAC and the League of Southeastern Credit Unions spent more than $320,000 in direct mail and digital ads on behalf of Eagle. Eagle lost in the Aug. 18 primary.
Both CULAC and NAFCU are bipartisan in their campaign contributions.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of Aug. 23, 54% of CULAC’s campaign contributions have gone to Democrats and 46% to Republicans. When Republicans held control of both Houses in 2018, the giving stood at 52% for Republicans and 48% for Democrats.
NAFCU’s political contribution patterns are similar. This election cycle, 56% of NAFCU’s contributions have gone to Democrats and 44% have gone to Republicans. Again, when Republicans held control of both houses in 2018, NAFCU made 55% of its contributions to Republicans and 46% to Democrats.
The American Bankers Association is not nearly as bipartisan, according to the analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, which reported that 69% of the ABA’s contributions have gone to Republicans and 31% to Democrats.
“We give to both sides, Hawkins said. “We think that’s important. No matter who controls the chamber we’re going to have relationships. If [we’re not] bipartisan, we could be persona non grata.”