Do business and labor PACs do different things with their money in elections?

They do. With a few exceptions, all put most of their money into contributions rather than independent expenditures. They all give most of their money to incumbents, too, although some are more willing to give to challengers.

Corporate PACs give the huge majority of their contributions to incumbents, and not only to Republicans. The share they give to Republican incumbents can vary from 40 to 60 percent, depending on how control of Congress shifts between the two parties. They very rarely give to challengers and they make almost no independent expenditures. Trade association PACs behave much like corporate PACs, giving more than 80 percent of their contributions to incumbents. But they appear to be even more pragmatic, being slightly more likely to give to Democrats.16

Labor PACs also give most of their contributions to incumbents, and 90 percent of their money goes to Democrats. They are much more likely to give to challengers, almost always to Democrats. The big difference from corporate PACs is that a much bigger share of labor PAC money has gone to making independent expenditures, especially in presidential elections. In 2008 labor PACs spent more than $50 million on behalf of Senator Barack Obama, more than twice what they had spent in any previous election.17

Corporate and trade PACs give most of their money to incumbents of both parties because the sponsoring corporations want access to powerful decision makers no matter who controls Congress. Giving to challengers is riskier, and corporate PACs, like corporations, tend to be risk-averse. Labor wants access, too, but the GOP has never been particularly friendly, so they give almost exclusively to Democrats. Given the limited access they have in any Congress, labor cannot afford not to take some risks, which is why they give more to challengers and spend so much on behalf of Democrats who share their views.18

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