Amid longstanding disagreement with the national VFW seen as Washington insiders allied with political neocons in the VA and immersed in the deny,-delay-and-hope-you-die culture, VFW’s move to dissolve its political arm fuels a long-standing debate over PACs, as grassroots and local VFW chapters revolt against the national
Should grassroots members have a say in political endorsements made in their group’s name?A dispute over that question could end in the Veterans of Foreign Wars dissolving the political action committee its members created more than three decades ago.
At heart, the debate is one between Washington insiders—who seek to increase their leverage on Capitol Hill—and veteran members the PAC said are swept up in a national anti-establishment tide.
“I think the nation is upset with Congress period,” Jerry Newberry, a PAC spokesman, said.
They are especially upset at the PAC’s endorsement of two Democratic incumbents: Sen. Barbara Boxer over Republican Carly Fiorina in California and Rep. Ron Klein over Republican and war veteran Allen West in Florida.
“VFW’s values and guiding principles aren’t grounded in a desire to participate in partisan policies in political activities,” VFW leaders wrote in a letter to the PAC. “However, our recent endorsement process unintentionally provided favoritism to the incumbents.”
If the PAC favors incumbents, it is because the group has tried to use its endorsements to develop mutually beneficial relationships with politicians.
“The VFW-PAC will not abandon those in Congress that have supported issues of critical importance to our nation’s security and veterans,” the PAC stated last week.
Heads of other advocacy groups say that such a strategy is integral to running an effective PAC. Take the Susan B. Anthony List, which has explicitly stated that electing pro-life women is key to achieving the group’s goal of banning abortions.
“To accomplish our ultimate goal of ending abortion in this country, we know that activating more pro-life women in the political and legislative arenas is critical,” the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List mission statement states.
The VFW-PAC states its goal as supporting “candidates who share our views about key veterans’ military and defense issues.” It has backed both Republicans and Democrats this cycle.
Those candidates wear their VFW endorsement as a badge of honor. Boxer has touted it as proof that she fights hard for veterans. VFW-PAC leaders know that by giving her that honor during elections, they can leverage her support on future policy issues.
That calculus may be common in D.C., but it differs greatly from how the grassroots members see the situation. Many veterans said they were upset that the group is backing establishment lawmakers. “By weighting selections towards sitting members of Congress, you are encouraging complacency and taking discourse out of the electoral process,” Pete Nicholsen, Florida VFW state commander, wrote to the PAC. The letter called on Floridians to disregard VFW’s endorsements and “vote their own conscience.”
Some Groups Include VFW Members
PACs are independent groups that raise money to support political candidates. Advocacy organizations, many of which are tax-exempt, are usually not allowed to play such a direct role in elections.
Groups such as VFW have gotten around that legal limitation by creating PACs that go by the same name but are subject to different disclosure and tax rules.
Prominent groups that have PACs include Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, National Right to Life Committee, Susan B. Anthony List, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Action Fund, VoteVets.org, EMILY’s List, and the Marijuana Policy Project.
These organizations spend millions of dollars influencing elections and backing candidates who can serve as valuable allies once in office. It can be an important tool for advocacy groups trying to create change.
Whether their grassroots weigh in on the endorsements varies greatly. Some treat the affiliated PAC as a completely separate entity and take no input. That’s the camp that VFW and VoteVets.org, which promotes veterans running for office, fall in.
Others such as the Sierra Club view the PAC as an extension of their membership and take an internal vote every election cycle to select their endorsements. That makes it easy for the group to defend its endorsements when members disagree with them. The group has backed mostly Democrats and two Republicans this year.
“Sometimes there are internal disagreements,” David Willett, spokesman for the Sierra Club, said. “In general, the Sierra Club is one organization. The votes represent the final opinion.”
VFW: Case for independent PACs
VoteVets.org, which structures itself similarly to the VFW PAC, has a different take. The group occasionally consults its 100,000-person e-mai list about elections, but the PAC leadership makes the final call on endorsements. Jon Soltz, the group’s chairman, has been following the VFW debate closely and said the membership uproar is “a right-wing fueled issue.”
He noted that VFW has endorsed incumbents and non-veterans over veterans before. “They are making an uproar of something that’s clearly partisan in nature,” he said.
Soltz said that is exactly why there should be some separation between members and who decides the endorsements. PACs should have the room to make strategic decisions about who they back, he argued. “We vote for who is going to win and who is good on the issues,” he said.
The VoteVets.org PAC leadership picked 10 veterans to endorse for office this year, including one Republican. “We are not going to give $10,000 to a candidate that can’t raise any money,” he added. “If you do, you’re spending your members’ money in places that don’t matter.”
VFW Commander-in-Chief Richard Eubank largely shut down its PAC operations last week, leaving one staff member on payroll. He intends to take a vote at the group’s August convention on whether to dissolve the committee altogether.
“I cannot let this erosion of public support for our great organization continue,” he said to explain the decision. On the other hand, dissolving the PAC could erode the group’s influence on Capitol Hill as well.
Ambreen Ali writes for Congress.org