Looking ahead to the 2024 presidential race, proponents of free-market policies and constitutionally limited government in Pennsylvania should know how they stack up financially against the opposing side.
The short answer is not very well, given recent history. In 2020, left-leaning political action committees (PACs) spent more than $7.5 million assisting Democrats vying for control of the state legislature and the attorney general’s office, according to campaign finance data from the Pennsylvania Department of State.
What are some of the key groups that heavily invested in the 2020 election cycle?
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On the Left, Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, a highly litigious environmental advocacy group, spent $856,000. But given Pennsylvania’s importance as a critical swing state, it’s worth noting that some of the groups in question are from outside of Pennsylvania.
These would include Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group backed by billionaire businessman-turned-politico Michael Bloomberg, spent $787,500. PACRONYM—the PAC arm of ACRONYM, a left-of-center digital strategy and voter mobilization group—spent $28,000. Planned Parenthood PA Votes, the PAC arm of the abortion advocacy group, spent $27,000.
The Pennsylvania Fund for Change, another progressive PAC, stands out as one of the single biggest spenders pumping in more than $7 million in 2020 and just over $3.5 million for 2022.
Pennsylvania Department of State records show the fund is a 501(c)(4) group incorporated by an entity known as Pa Alliance LLC. From here, the money trail leads directly back to organized labor.
The alliance received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the state affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), according to campaign finance records. The National Education Association (NED), PSEA’s national affiliate, donated more than $1 million to the progressive Pennsylvania Alliance Action in 2018.
Other notable supporters of the fund in 2018 include $75,000 from Emily’s List Federal Fund (a feminist group), $350,000 from Working for Working Americans (a group backed by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners), and $100,000 from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (a group founded by former Attorney General Eric Holder).
The Pennsylvania Leadership Committee was another force to reckon with in 2020 spending roughly $2.2 million. The PAC is an affiliate of the American Leadership Committee, which funds Democratic candidates in other politically competitive states.
By comparison, during the 2020 presidential race, Republicans received about $159,000 from Americans for Prosperity, a free-market group; about $15,000 from Gun Owners of America, a Second Amendment advocacy group; and $56,000 from the Pennsylvania Family Council, an outfit that supports family values. That comes out to about $2.3 million.
From inside of Pennsylvania, only the Commonwealth Leaders Fund and the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund helped to narrow the gap in 2020 together spending about $7.7 million.
These contributions are significant but nowhere close to what left-leaning groups pumped into the Keystone State in the past presidential election year. In terms of public policy, there is much at stake.
The school choice movement, for instance, has gained considerable traction in Pennsylvania and other states following the pandemic-related school shutdowns, according to data collected by EdChoice, a nonprofit that supports educational freedom.
However, the proposed Lifeline Scholarship Program, also known as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS), stalled in the legislature. The Lifeline Scholarship/PASS Program would provide scholarship funds to Pennsylvania students in the worst-performing public schools. Despite expressing support for the program during his campaign, Gov. Josh Shapiro recently line-item vetoed the latest version from the appropriations budget.
Although there is still an opportunity for state lawmakers to act, school choice advocates are up against a vast network of well-funded, well-organized pressure groups that oppose education reform.
Education Voters of Pennsylvania (also known as Education Voters of PA) stands out as one of those groups. Education Voters describes itself as a project of the Keystone Research Center. Under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, Keystone benefits as a nonprofit branch of Arabella Advisors. Arabella stands above an expansive network of nonprofit funds that donates to progressive causes. As of 2020, these funds had revenues exceeding $1.7 billion and expenditures of $1.3 billion, according to Influence Watch.
In addition to education reform, energy production is another Pennsylvania-based issue that reverberates across state lines. Thanks to innovative drilling techniques, large natural gas deposits are now available in the Marcellus Shale, which cuts across a large portion of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Regulatory Review Act, a proposed constitutional amendment, would give elected officials greater leverage to prevent state agencies from unilaterally enacting regulations that hinder private companies from providing consumers with reliable, affordable energy.
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Self-described environmental advocacy groups, from inside and outside of Pennsylvania, have been lobbying pliable lawmakers to impose carbon taxes on residents and companies as part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the multistate cap-and-trade agreement. Although former Gov. Tom Wolf attempted to circumvent the state legislature to join the initiative, litigation has, so far, prevented Pennsylvania from participating in RGGI.
What are the prospects for regulatory reform that could enable Pennsylvania to achieve its full potential as an energy giant?
Big Green Inc., a project of the Institute for Energy Research, a nonprofit group that favors free-market energy policies, demonstrates how well-funded progressive foundations pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into anti-energy advocacy groups. The left-leaning Sea Change Foundation, and the Energy Foundation, both based in San Francisco, have steered grants to groups opposed to oil and gas production in Pennsylvania.
Beneficiaries of this funding include the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the League of Conservation Voters—all active in Pennsylvania. The William Penn Foundation, based in Philadelphia, and Heinz Endowments based in Pittsburgh have also been prodigious funders of environmental advocacy groups delivering grants ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands to individual beneficiaries.
Pennsylvania residents who favor free-market reforms might want to know if donors of their persuasion have been able to narrow the gap.
In the 2021–22 election cycle, the Conservation Voters Action Fund spent $114,425, the Conservation Voters Victory Fund spent more than $3.2 million, Pennsylvania Alliance Action spent about $2.4 million, and Planned Parenthood (including its Pennsylvania-based PAC and Planned Parenthood Votes) spent about $1.3 million.
There’s yet another entity that entered the fray in the 2021–22 cycle that should turn heads: Priorities USA Action. This super PAC spent more than $1 million. Super PACs pack a wallop since they can raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, and individuals. The caveat is that their nonprofit tax status prohibits them from contributing directly to political parties or candidates. Priorities USA Action, which Democratic Party activists founded in 2011, has become the “most well-funded Super PAC in history,” according to Influence Watch.
Priorities USA Action is sure to double down on Pennsylvania in the 2024 presidential election year.
Other entities that are likely to be a major force in 2024 include Swing Left, a PAC that supports Democrats running for legislative seats, the PA Blue Victory Fund, a PAC devoted to making Pennsylvania a blue state, and Fairness PA, a PAC that supports state-level candidates. In 2020, Swing Left spent $120,000, the PA Blue Victory Fund spent $98,500 and Fairness PA spent $605,550.
This is only a partial list of all the progressive groups concentrating on Pennsylvania. But it’s enough to illustrate that most of the money in the political fight sits on the “progressive” side of the table and not with groups friendly to free markets.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include some spending not mentioned in the original version.
Kevin Mooney is the Senior Investigative Reporter at the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank, and writes for several national publications. @KevinMooneyDC