WASHINGTON — Two of the leading sources of political contributions to Sen. Lamar Alexander in his current term reflect what campaign finance experts call inside-Washington money, Federal Election Commission records show.
Lobbyists and leadership political action committees are two of the top "industries" giving to the Tennessee Republican since his last election in 2008, according to a breakdown of FEC data by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks political dollars.
The top five are pharmaceutical and health products ($263,650); lobbyists ($183,485); insurance ($170,250); health professionals ($166,450); and leadership PACs ($165,000).
The totals include money going to Alexander's campaign committee as well as his own leadership PAC, Tenn PAC.
Alexander is running for a third term in 2014.
Leadership PACs are special fund-raising entities lawmakers use to give money to other senators or House members, enhancing the influence of the donor. They can also be used for miscellaneous non-campaign expenses.
"It is clear that Washington lobbyists and leadership PACs overwhelmingly favor incumbents," said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center, a group that pushes for campaign finance reform.
They are, McGehee said, "the very embodiment of insider money."
But Alexander's campaign manager, Alice Rolli, said the overwhelming majority of the senator's campaign funds come from ordinary Tennesseans.
"The Alexander campaign is grateful to have raised $3.9 million in the first nine months of this year — $2.7 million of this came from several thousand individuals, most of whom are Tennesseans. The $3.9 million includes $120,000 raised for the leadership PAC, most of which is contributed to other Republicans," Rolli said in a statement.
A lot of the money Alexander attracts is due to his own political connections and committee assignments, political observers say. He is the ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
"He's got Washington wired," said analyst Kathy Kiely of The Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group. "They are going to put money where they think it is going to pay off."
Added Cal Jillson, political scientist at Southern Methodist University: "They want to make sure they have made a contribution that puts them on (the member's) radar screen" in terms of getting access. "Their time is being rented; their vote is not being bought."
Top leadership PACs giving to Alexander include those associated with Republican Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania ($10,000), John Barrasso of Wyoming ($10,000), Richard Shelby of Alabama ($10,000) and John Thune of South Dakota ($10,000).
"Challengers don't generally have these leadership PACs, though they are now instructed by their parties to set one up quickly if they happen to win," McGehee said. "If a challenger does set up a leadership PAC, it can be hard to attract the contributions since the challenger has no power to wield."
And contributions from a leadership PAC, she said, often represent recycled lobbying money because lobbyists are often among the biggest givers to leadership PACs.
In fact, most of the money Alexander has gotten so far from lobbyists — $153,485 out of $183,485 — were contributions to his Tenn PAC.
"A cursory look at the top leadership PACs — in terms of receipts — for current members of Congress shows that large chunks of money come from interests who are well represented by lobbyists," McGehee said.
"Many times, the candidate's constituents have no idea the candidate has a leadership PAC or what it is."