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The Great PAC Stress Test

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

By Dan Ekstein

“The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

The period between March 2020 and March 2021, in my mind, will always be known as “The Great PAC Stress Test.” If you have whiplash, or your memory is a little foggy, let me remind you of all the country and our industry have been through over the last several months. It will illustrate why we are resilient.

In March 2020, eight months out from a major national election, America’s political action committees (PACs) were forced to move their operations home and online. (How were we supposed to handle the operations of our programs – like getting physical checks processed and mailed?!) In light of a global pandemic that threatened an economic depression, many corporate and association PACs paused solicitations. (No one knew how long that would last!)

Yet, we found our footing. Many PAC directors leaned in on recognition and education – explaining the purpose and value of advocacy and engagement. And political engagement teams pulled off virtual fly-ins, online bidding events, and YES – they continued to communicate with their colleagues.

Then, just as it seemed the COVID-19 pandemic might be waning, the killing of George Floyd set off a long-overdue conversation about race, criminal justice and inequality in America. As part of this, journalists and interest groups scrutinized politicians’ public policy positions – as they should – and scoured Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports for evidence of bias.

All of the organizations we serve are committed to listening to and affirming their diversity and inclusion efforts. This transferred to their PACs. A significant focus was placed on reviewing candidate disbursement criteria, and many groups added values as an essential filter for future disbursement decisions.

Now we, the business PAC community, face what might be the most profound stressor of the last year: the events of January 6, 2021 – an attack on the U.S. Capitol by Americans themselves.

The attack was unthinkable and horrific, and voters and donors from all categories should consider their future support of every lawmaker who voted against certifying the election. Indeed, lawmakers who stoked the violence should be held accountable.

But the calls to end PACs in general? We know these moves are short-sighted and would do more harm to our political system than good. As I have said to many over the past weeks, we must stay flexible, stay positive and stay forward. We know how to do this because we have been through the last 10.5 months. Believe it or not, we’re surviving the stress test.

As a reminder, in medical terms, a stress test evaluates cardiovascular capacity. It examines whether strenuous exercise reveals your heart to be strong … or weak. Since the financial crisis in 2008, banks are now required to go through regular stress tests to determine their ability to handle changes in economic conditions.

The coronavirus pandemic tested our ability to pivot operations quickly, to be flexible. We did figure out the rules for processing checks when going into the office felt like an enormous personal risk. We figured out a lot more, too. In particular, we learned a new language and ways for communicating with employees who felt anxious, overstretched and uncertain. Our capacity for empathy grew. We honed our tools for staying positive in a crisis.

Last summer, when questions were raised about diversity and inclusion in our corporate boardrooms and among our PACs, we examined our giving criteria. Some PACs added layers to the process – more expansive scoring, a better questionnaire, a new interview process. We looked forward and not back. We also took time to remind our donors and prospects that every dollar a PAC gives to federal candidates is reported and identifiable by the public and media.

Our organizations’ PAC programs are the most transparent and accountable in the U.S. campaign finance system.

We survived those tests, and we will survive this crisis.

While it is appropriate to pause and reflect again, we must carry out the lessons we have learned since March.

Stay flexible. Do not box yourself into what you should do in a week, much less in a year. Continue to be the empathetic voice you have been for employees and members always – and especially this last year. Stay positive and remind people of your guiding principles and the issues you and your employees or members advocate. (After all, it’s the issues that matter.)

Finally, keep your eye on the future. If you have robust mechanisms in place to evaluate when and to whom to donate, you should be proud to write a check tonight, tomorrow or in three months. (Correspondingly, if you are demanding checks back from contributions made a year ago, it’s an admission that your criteria were, and remain, suspect. Don’t reinforce the pejoratives about PACs we rail against.)

Employee-funded PACs will continue to be an essential part of an organization’s advocacy efforts. By the nature of their role, elected officials must get reelected. Fundraising for their political campaigns and leadership positions within their party caucuses is a reality. Long-term success on Capitol Hill, across state capitals and in city halls requires an appreciation of this dynamic.

A PAC demonstrates real support to candidates and reinforces the value American businesses and associations provide to a thriving economy. We have shown our resilience over the last year. We will do so again.

Dan Ekstein is partner and chief business development officer at Sagac Public Affairs, a national firm that provides high-impact communications, market research, fundraising, and issue advocacy solutions to hundreds of political, nonprofit and corporate organizations. Ekstein is an advocacy industry leader in the implementation of comprehensive strategies for political finance operations. The firm’s clients represent more than one-third of all federal qualified funds raised each election cycle by corporate and trade association PACs.

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