Tedra Cobb’s Backroads PAC supports rural Democrats as they run for Congress, but it’s being criticized for how much money it actually gives to candidates.
Since March 2021, the political action committee has raised over $375,000, and spent about $9,500 on direct contributions to eight candidates across the country, including two candidates in New York, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Meanwhile, the organization has paid Cobb $34,500 for consulting work and a health insurance stipend, as well as $25,701 to Mauranda Stahl-Simmons, a communications consultant. Overall, 2.5% of the PAC’s money has gone to candidates, 81.5% has gone to administrative costs for the PAC, and 16% has gone to Cobb and Stahl-Simmonds.
Maggie Bartley, chair of the Essex County Democratic Committee, said she’s disappointed to see that breakdown, and feels that Backroads PAC has been taking money out of Cobb’s former campaign district — New York’s 21st Congressional District — without sowing any money back into the local Democratic field.
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“When I looked at her (FEC reports) I was amazed at how little money was going to candidates,” Bartley said.
Bartley, who has worked with Cobb’s campaign during both her runs for Congress, said she and other local Democrats believed Backroads PAC was going to direct as much money as possible to candidates, and help out in the Democratic race for NY-21.
She said the 9% spent on stipends and consulting fees for Cobb should never have been spent.
“When people donate to a PAC, they expect their money is going to be going to candidates,” she said.
Money used for salary, benefits
In a video interview Thursday, Cobb said the PAC has been more successful than she initially expected, and the money that has been spent on establishing the organization and paid to herself and Stahl-Simmons is nothing out of the ordinary.
“Organizations have fixed costs,” Cobb said. “There’s the cost of making sure you can do emails, the cost of reporting to the FEC, there’s a credit card processing fee.”
She described the payments to herself and Stahl-Simmonds as simply payment for work performed.
“I feel that everyone should get paid for the work they do,” she said. “I do work for this PAC, Mauranda does work for this PAC, and we are working for those candidates.”
Cobb said her two campaigns for Congress, while unsuccessful, showed her a lot about running for office in a rural district in the modern political climate. Her second campaign against Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, netted her a large social media following, and a lot of donors, advantages she said she has also leveraged for candidates supported by Backroads.
“I’m able to support candidates in other ways, help them raise their profiles to start their campaigns,” she said. “The other thing is, I have a really great email list and I’m able to share news about candidates, and I’m able to raise funds for those candidates.”
The organization’s largest single bill is from GBAO Strategies, for $58,100. GBAO is a research and strategy firm in Washington, DC, and it worked with Backroads PAC to administer a June 2021 poll of 10 counties in states considered to be senatorial battleground states: Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Nevada, Iowa, Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Cobb said that poll has informed the PAC’s decisions on who to support, and has provided strong insight into how Democrats can chart a path to victory in areas that have long supported Republican candidates. A summary provided to the Times says the poll’s results showed that veterans, small business owners and veteran candidates who discuss issues rather than discuss former President Donald Trump are the best bet for Democrats to win in rural areas in 2022.
“We are able to share that information with everyone, all the candidates who are running and all those sitting congresspeople as well,” she said.
According to the FEC documents, Cobb received $21,000 of the $34,000 paid to her by the PAC for health insurance, in $1,500 monthly increments over the last year. She said, because she is not part of a larger organization that provides health insurance, her individual payments for coverage are the most expensive on the market.
“For me, it’s expensive and my deductible is over $10,000,” she said.
Cobb’s primary focus during her congressional campaigns was health care, making it more affordable and accessible for rural and low-income families. She said it’s important to her that everyone has access to health care, including herself.
Backroads PAC, while run day-to-day by Cobb, is overseen by a board of directors that includes former Michigan Congressman March Schauer; Clinton Britt, the former chief of staff to Congressman Paul Tonko, D-Albany; and Corine Bartow, head of banking company Fintech Partnerships. That board unanimously voted to provide Cobb with health insurance.
PACs are given wide leeway on how funds can be used, and paying for employee or consultant health insurance costs is an allowed expense.
Of the $9,500 provided directly to the eight candidates supported by Backroads PAC, Cobb said she didn’t expect to be able to provide any money at all to candidates in the organization’s first year. It’s not uncommon for political groups to take years to establish donor bases and resources substantial enough to endorse and support candidates, and she’s excited to see Backroads take that first step now.
Cobb won’t donate in primaries
Bartley said she and other Democrats in Essex County were convinced that Backroads PAC was going to support a candidate in NY-21, since many of Cobb’s donors have been from NY-21.
“Her name recognition is here, she never won office so her recognition is only really here in the North Country,” Bartley said.
Bartley said Backroads PAC has absorbed money that would otherwise have gone to support a candidate in NY-21, and she has started suggesting donors support candidates directly, rather than donate to PACs.
Cobb said the PAC, in most cases, will not get involved in primary races unless there is a clear frontrunner or an incumbent who fits its criteria running for reelection.
She recalled the campaign of 2018, when she ran in an 11-way primary for the Democratic nomination for NY-21. It was important to her then that the voters decide who was the Democratic nominee without party influence, and that remains the same now.
“In the case of New York 21, we don’t have a candidate yet, and we won’t until the primaries are over,” she said. “For each of the candidates, I’ve met with them, I’ve been to a couple of events, I’ve been available on the phone and I have been there for them. I will be there for whoever comes out of this primary.”
Stahl-Simmons, the PAC’s communication consultant, is also a communications consultant for Matthew Putorti, one of the Democrats in the race for NY-21, as well as other candidates nationally. Cobb said the PAC’s compliance consultant, Campaign Compliance Inc., has monitored both her and Stahl-Simmons’ work to ensure there is no crossover between the PAC and any other campaigns, something she and Stahl-Simmons take seriously.
It isn’t uncommon for campaign consultants to work for multiple organizations, especially when they are involved with PACs.
“As a consultant, you always work with multiple people, and you keep track of these things,” Cobb said. “Our compliance firm has made sure that we do things always transparently, with integrity.”
Now, with about $68,700 left in cash on hand and more donations anticipated, Cobb said Backroads PAC is on a strong upward trajectory, and she expects to be able to endorse and support up to seven more candidates.
“Once the primaries are done, we will continue to support candidates,” she said.