WASHINGTON – Rep. Chris Collins dramatically increased his campaign fundraising in the first half of the year, and he took more money from health care and pharmaceutical companies than any other special interest at a time when he's under investigation for his ties to an Australian biotech firm.
The Clarence Republican raised $529,964 in the first six months of this year, 77 percent more than he raised in the same period two years earlier. Some $58,500 of that new campaign money came from political action committees tied to the health care industry, including $31,000 from pharmaceutical industry PACs.
Collins' newly aggressive fundraising highlighted the six-month candidate reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, which also showed Rep. Tom Reed – long a fundraising juggernaut – raising far more money that any other lawmaker.
Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat from a largely Democratic Buffalo-based district, trailed as usual despite a new uptick in contributions from the financial industry.
Members of Congress often get large shares of their campaign money from special interests, and the three local lawmakers are no exception.
Collins' contributions from the health care special interests – and especially the donations from drug companies – are notable for two reasons.
He serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Health Subcommittee, and last year he authored a section of important health legislation that speeds the process for new drugs to be approved through clinical trials.
In addition, Collins is the largest shareholder in Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech firm that tried and failed to make a successful new drug for multiple sclerosis. Before that drug failed, though, Collins touted the company to his colleagues and Buffalo-area investors, prompting an Office of Congressional Ethics investigation.
And before the drug failed, Innate said in corporate filings it was looking to possibly be taken over by a larger pharmaceutical firm. Larger pharmaceutical firms such as Amgen, Merck and Pfizer all have political committees that donated to Collins, who had a fundraiser specifically targeting the pharmaceutical industry in May.
Asked why Collins took so much money from health care interests, Collins' political adviser, Christopher M. Grant, said it's only natural for such PACs to do so.
"They want to make sure they are supporting lawmakers who support pro-growth, pro-worker policies," Grant said.
Grant also acknowledged that Collins has ramped up his fundraising in anticipation of a more substantive threat in the 2018 election. The Democratic Congressional Campaign announced early this year that it is targeting Collins, and one Democrat, Erin Cole, already announced she will challenge Collins next year. She is a military veteran and former state and federal government official.
Collins and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have clashed repeatedly over health care and other issues, and Cuomo already said he's teaming with Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to try to defeat several New York Republicans, including Collins.
"We know what that entails, and we're prepared for the fight," Grant said.
Collins starts off well prepared, with a campaign chest of $1.1 million as of June 30.
That's considerably more than Reed, who raised significantly more than Collins in the first half of the year.
Reed – who has had to fight off serious challenges in the last three elections – spent far more campaign money than Collins or Higgins. That's because Reed, unlike the others, maintains a year-round campaign operation, meaning he spent much of the money he raised and didn't bank his money the way Collins and Higgins did.
Just as Collins took a large share of his money from a special interest that's tied to the committee he serves on, so did Reed. A member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, Reed took more than a quarter of his PAC money from the finance and insurance industries, which are keenly interested in tax reform legislation that is set to be developed in that committee later this year.
Reed's campaign manager, Nicholas Weinstein, said there never is any connection between the money Reed takes and the positions he takes on the issues.
"It's not going to affect what his decisions are," Weinstein said. "He bases his decisions on the interests of the people of the 23rd congressional district."
Reed raised 30 percent more money in the first six months of the year than he did two years earlier, and Weinstein said it's partly because of the Corning Republican's involvement in the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group that is trying to break through the gridlock that has gripped Congress this year.
"That has gotten us attention from across the table and across the country," Weinstein said.
Meantime, Higgins has enjoyed a smaller increase in fundraising, and an unusually high share of it – 24 percent – came from the same kind of finance and insurance industry PACs that have funded Reed for years.
Higgins raised more from the financial industry in the first six months of the year than he did in the previous two years combined, and it's all because he just rejoined the Ways and Means Committee after six years on other panels. He also joined the House Budget Committee.
"Different committee memberships expose members of Congress to different people, and given Brian's move to the Ways and Means and Budget committees, that's likely what's happened here," said Chuck Eaton, Higgins chief of staff. "The same thing happened back in 2009 when he served on Ways and Means, so this really isn't much of a surprise."
The figures prove that Eaton is right. Higgins' fundraising from financial interests doubled in the 2010 election cycle, when he served on Ways and Means, and shrunk in half in 2012 after he left the committee.
Higgins still gets more of his PAC money from organized labor than from any other source, while Collins and Reed get far less from unions.
The three Western New York lawmakers have one thing in common in terms of their fundraising. They don't get much money from average voters. All three got more than half their money from PACs and between 37 and 44 percent from big-money individual donors.
Higgins got 8 percent of his campaign donations for the first half of the year from small donors. Collins received 3 percent of his campaign money from small individual contributors, and Reed got just 2 percent from such people.