AUGUSTA, Maine — Campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins have become a main talking point for opponents of her 2020 re-election campaign. But they have fueled politicians across the country — and in Maine — for years.
In the fall, the 16 Countries Coalition, a liberal “dark money” group, started airing ads critical of Collins citing money from drug and insurance companies. The liberal Maine People’s Alliance published a video last week of an activist pushing her on pharmaceutical-linked contributions.
Collins’ campaign has pushed back, pointing to votes on prescription drug bills and one of her main opponents’ records of taking money from pharmaceutical companies and affiliates. Taking pharmaceutical money, it turns out, does not make the Maine senator or her opponents unique.
Federal and state campaign finance data show that pharmaceutical companies — often through political action committee or executives — have funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into Maine politics over the last decade, giving money to Collins, House Speaker Sara Gideon, the senator’s nationally backed Democratic challenger, and to a range of politicians and causes.
Collins has taken campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry. But not as much as most other longtime senators. Dating back to 2007, Collins has received just over $320,000 in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that tracks campaign finance.
That total includes $253,000 from PACs affiliated with pharmaceutical companies and another $71,550 in contributions greater than $200 from individuals employed by such companies. That amounts to only about 1.5 percent of the senator’s fundraising in the same period.
In a Friday statement, Kevin Kelley, a campaign spokesman for Collins, said donations “do not influence her decision on any issue.” That matches what she told the Maine activist in last week’s video, in which Collins also incorrectly said she hadn’t taken money from the family behind Purdue Pharma, though that represented just one contribution in 2007.
Compared to most senators who have been in Washington for at least the past decade, Collins has raised less from pharmaceutical companies. Among senators who have held their office since 2007 without running for president, she ranks 20th out of 32 in contributions from the industry.
Alex Baumgart, researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, noted that senators in leadership positions or committees that deal with health care or pharmaceutical-related issues often receive the most contributions from PACs looking to gain influence. Collins doesn’t sit on committees that tend to attract the most interest from the industry.
A committee led by Gideon has also taken pharmaceutical money, though Maine Republicans have taken more than Democrats on average over the past decade. Politicians in Maine sometimes deride the corrupting influence of money in Washington. But state candidates often accept money from the pharmaceutical industry, too.
Gideon, one of the four Democrats looking to challenge Collins this November, managed a PAC supporting party legislative candidates throughout much of her time in the Legislature. The PAC received nearly $17,000 in contributions from pharmaceutical affiliates, a little more than 6 percent of its total fundraising.
When it comes to who can make contributions, Maine’s campaign law differs from federal law. Under federal law — which governs election to the U.S. House and Senate, as well as the presidency — campaigns and PACs cannot take money directly from corporations, only from individuals and other PACs.
To circumvent this, many corporations set up corporate PACs, which receive contributions from employees or other individuals, and then give it to candidates. Contributions to candidates are capped at $2,800 per election cycle, while contributions to PACs are capped at $5,000.
Under Maine law, which covers state legislative elections, as well as municipal and gubernatorial races, corporations can give directly to candidates, though they are subject to contribution limits. They can give to PACs, including leadership PACs, without limits.
Gideon is not the only Maine politician to lead a committee that received contributions from pharmaceutical companies and their PACs, nor was she the state’s biggest recipient. Since 2008, state-level candidates and committees have taken in more than $1.4 million in contributions from either pharmaceutical PACs or the corporations themselves, according to a Bangor Daily News analysis of Maine Ethics Commission data.
The bulk of that — $970,289 — went to Republican candidates and committees, while $431,227 went to Democratic causes. Independent candidates and PACs not affiliated with either party received another $41,238.
Though Gideon’s leadership PAC accepted pharmaceutical money, the House speaker has pledged to join many other Democrats in not accepting corporate PAC money during her Senate campaign. That would include pharmaceutical PACs, though she has taken money from other PACs run by Democrats that take corporate PAC money.
Candidates have fallen under increased scrutiny for accepting pharmaceutical money in recent years, amid rising health care costs and anger about the opioid crisis. Campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry have drawn increased attention in recent years amid outcry over high drug prices and the role the companies such as Purdue Pharma might have played in the opioid epidemic.
As public concerns have grown, so have contributions from the industry to politicians. Donations to federal candidates totaled nearly $29 million during the 2018 midterm cycle, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a record for a non-presidential year.
“We see them right up there with oil and gas, commercial banks when it comes to giving to incumbents in Congress,” said Baumgart, the Center for Responsive Politics researcher. “This is an ongoing trend, and we’re just expecting to see more.”