To boost her political standing, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has been spreading campaign cash around for years, both to her Republican colleagues in the Senate and to the Maine GOP

It comes from her little-noticed leadership political action committee, Dirigo PAC, which has hauled in more than $2.5 million since its inception in 2003.

Her PAC has donated to a who’s who of powerful GOP figures, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Assistant Majority Leader John Thune of South Dakota, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Collins, who is running for a fifth term next year, has used the PAC’s proceeds to hand out campaign contributions to scores of Maine Republicans, and at least 36 current U.S. senators who share her partisan allegiance. Her PAC’s cash has helped Senate candidates in every state except New York and Vermont.

The process is all perfectly legal. It is bipartisan, as well, because many Democrats have similar leadership PACs. Maine’s junior senator, independent Angus King, has had one since arriving on Capitol Hill six years ago, funneling money almost entirely to Democrats.

Rules governing leadership PACs are notoriously loose, but their funds can’t be used directly on the leaders’ own re-election. They can, though, pay for a lot of politicking, and can hand out money to congressional colleagues and candidates.

Like nearly all of her Senate colleagues, Collins has more than one way to raise money for her political needs.

The one that takes in the most cash is her chief campaign committee, Collins For Senator. It has raised $4.4 million so far to boost her chances of winning a 2020 re-election race that has attracted national attention because of speculation the Democrats might have a shot at defeating her.

There have been a number of news stories dissecting her donor list, which this year has consisted largely of wealthy, out-of-state interests.

U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., left, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., leave a closed-door meeting of Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington in October 2013. AP Photo by Susan Walsh

Her Dirigo PAC, operated on a smaller scale, has not had the same scrutiny.

The Federal Election Commission says leadership PACs such as Dirigo are political committees “established, financed, maintained or controlled by a candidate or an individual holding a federal office” that are often established by members of Congress “to support candidates for federal and non-federal offices.”

In Maine, Collins’ PAC sends out smaller donations to GOP politicians, but the money makes up a far bigger share of the treasuries of its recipients.

In 2018, for instance, she gave $400 to Rep. Bruce Bickford’s campaign in Auburn in May. By Election Day, Collins had forked over $400 apiece to 33 additional Republicans seeking state legislative seats.

She also gave $1,600 to Shawn Moody’s unsuccessful gubernatorial run, $5,000 to the state GOP and $5,000 to the Maine Senate Majority PAC.

All told, Dirigo last year spread around more than $25,000 to the Maine Republican Party and its candidates in 2018 alone, a drop in the bucket by Washington standards but enough to matter in the Pine Tree State.

In 2014, when Collins last appeared on the Maine ballot, Dirigo spread around money to even more Republican candidates in the state, as well as county GOP committees.

Mostly, though, her PAC has donated nearly $1.2 million since its inception to Republican senators and candidates vying for the office of U.S. senator. The biggest recipient? U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has received $30,000 from Dirigo.

In the world of political leadership PACs, Collins’ Dirigo operation is dwarfed by others that bring in, and shell out, far more each year. U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, for example, has one called the House Freedom Fund that distributed nearly as much last year as Collins ever has.

Her PAC has handed out more than $2 million over time. Some of its money has paid for food and venues for fundraisers, but in general it’s been used for donations to other politicians.

Dirigo’s 117 donations to U.S. senators and candidates for the Senate went to 115 Republicans and two independents.

A Florida independent, Charlie Crist, got $5,000 for a 2010 Senate campaign that ultimately flopped.

The other exception arose in 2006, when U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, whom Collins calls a friend, lost a Democratic primary. Collins sent him almost $5,000 to assist with his successful bid to retain his seat in the general election as a candidate for his made-up-on-the-spot A Connecticut Party. The following year, Lieberman tapped his own leadership PAC to send Collins $5,000.

Most of the money from Collins’ leadership PAC, though, has poured into the coffers of Republicans who are either already in the Senate or trying to win a seat. Her PAC typically gives them $5,000 at a time, the maximum allowed for each election cycle, occasionally sending separate checks for primaries and general elections.

The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign finances, says that “by making donations to members of their party, ambitious lawmakers can use their leadership PACs to gain clout among their colleagues and boost their bids for leadership posts or committee chairmanships.”

When the Dirigo PAC began, it was run by Thomas Daffron, a savvy political operator and former chief of staff for Bill Cohen, who represented Maine in the House and Senate for years. Daffron stayed at its helm until he married Collins in 2012.

Over the years, the PAC has sometimes sent money to candidates with whom Collins felt a political kinship, including New England GOP leaders such as former U.S. Reps. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, Bruce Poliquin of Maine, and former U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, before he became a Democrat.

Over time, though, Dirigo has donated more than $20,000 to five senators, all of them Republicans: Murkowski, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Johnny Isakson of Georgia.

Many of those receiving Dirigo money proudly proclaim themselves as hard-core conservatives, among them John Cornyn of Texas, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Mike Enzi of Wyoming.

It goes the other way, as well. Inhofe’s leadership PAC sent Collins’ campaign $10,000 in 2014 to help her secure her fourth term in the Senate.

Some of it doesn’t make sense except in the topsy-turvy world of campaign finances, where odd transactions are usually just a way to obey the letter of the law regarding limits on donations and expenditures while making sure money finds its way to where it’s needed.

Consider, for example, that Collins’ PAC donated $10,000 to U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado’s campaign in December 2018 while Gardner’s leadership PAC sent her campaign the same amount.

The cash politicians hand over to one another through leadership PACs doesn’t come from their personal coffers. It typically originates with political action committees that represent particular interests, including unions, professions and companies. These types of PACs make up 90% of the donors to Dirigo.

Some wealthy individuals have also kicked in $10,000 or more to Dirigo over the years, including both Bill and Melinda Gates, and Cohen, who gave Collins her first job in the nation’s capital as an intern.

The PACs that have given to Dirigo represent nearly every major business sector in the country.

For example, in the PAC’s last filing with the Federal Election Commission, covering only the last five weeks of 2018, Collins’ PAC received money from PACs representing Federal Express, CSX Corp., the American Dental Association, Oppenheimer Funds and Mass Mutual Life Insurance. Together, they sent her $17,000.

Dirigo is tied to Collins, her campaign committee and an entity called Wonder Women Victory Committee. The Wonder Women it refers to do not hail from a Greek Island, but instead constitute a group of five GOP senators.

The women supported by the PAC are Collins, Murkowski, Debra Fischer of Nebraska, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.

They divvied up more than $50,000 in contributions last year, with Charter Communications, a telecom firm, providing almost half the cash raised by the PAC.

What Collins’ Dirigo has been doing this year is tough to say.

Instead of filing at least quarterly reports with the FEC, as it must in election years, it sent paperwork to the campaign finance oversight agency indicating it does not plan to report anything until after June 30.

Though Collins is formally a candidate, she has said she will not make a firm decision about whether to run again until late in the year.

She faces a possible primary from Derek Lavasseur, who is challenging her from within GOP ranks. There is only one active Democrat in the contest so far, Saco lawyer Bre Kidman. Independent Danielle VanHelsing is also in the mix.

Other possible candidates are eyeing whether to join the race.

U.S. Sen. Angus King

KING’S LEADERSHIP PAC

Maine’s junior senator, independent Angus King, created his own leadership political action committee soon after arriving in Washington in 2013.

Since then, his Make It Work PAC has distributed about $130,000 to candidates — 95% of it to Democrats, including all of its $91,300 in contributions during the 2018 election cycle.

King, who caucuses with the Democrats, devoted most of the spending to try to help embattled Democratic candidates for the Senate last year, including Florida’s Bill Nelson, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly and Missouri’s Claire McAskill. They all lost.

One of the people who got money from his PAC, back in 2014, was Maine’s senior senator, Collins, who collected $1,000 from him.

The two Republicans who got the most from King were Murkowski and Isakson, who each received $2,000 shortly before Election Day in 2016.

As it happens, they are also the top two recipients of donations from Collins’ leadership PAC over the years.

King has collected money for his PAC from a mix of sources, including $27,500 from General Dynamics, $25,000 from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and $20,000 from Lockheed Martin.

Maine’s two members of the U.S. House — Democrats Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden — do not have leadership PACs.

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