BOSTON — Labor unions poured millions of dollars into the campaign coffers of Democratic candidates ahead of the midterm elections, according to newly released data.
Topping the list of contributors in Massachusetts races was a political action committee created by Service Employees International Union Local 1199, which represents health care workers. It gave $428,576 to Democratic candidates, ballot committees and others between Jan. 1 and Oct. 30, according to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
A political committee controlled by the Massachusetts & Northern New England Laborers District gave the second-largest amount to candidates ahead of the election, or $288,586, according to disclosures filed with the state.
Meanwhile, the Retired Public Employees PAC, which represents retired state workers, gave $285,399, the third-largest amount ahead of the election.
A committee controlled by House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, spent the fourth-largest amount ahead of the midterms, or $215,066.
Overall, 254 political committees reported spending more than $3.3 million from Jan. 1 through Oct. 30, according to campaign finance data. At least seven committees spent more than $100,000.
Several Democrats running for Statehouse seats benefited from union spending.
Among them were Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat who won the 2nd Essex/Middlesex Senate seat held by outgoing Sen. Barbara L'Italien, D-Andover. Finegold, who held the seat previously, received $500 from the SEIU PAC, the limit for a political action committee. He also got $500 from the Retired Public Employees PAC.
Tram Nguyen, another Andover Democrat who toppled Republican incumbent Rep. Jim Lyons — got $500 each from the SEIU 1199 and Retired Public Employees committees.
Rep. Diana DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat, received $500 from SEIU for her bid for the 1st Essex Senate seat. She also banked $300 from the Retired Public Employees.
Political action committees may contribute up to $500 per year to candidates.
Those affiliated with unions and Democrats also contributed heavily to other liberal campaigns ahead of the midterms.
One of the SEIU 1199 committee’s biggest contributions was $20,000 to Freedom for All Massachusetts, a ballot committee formed in support of the state’s transgender protection law that was the subject of Question 3.
The committee also gave $10,000 to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a self-described nonpartisan research group.
Tim Foley, SEIU 1199's executive vice president, defended the contributions.
"The 60,000 members of 1199 SEIU are nonpartisan, providing their support to political candidates based on their commitment to the issues they care deeply about: quality health care; fair pay and benefits for workers; and social justice and equity for all in Massachusetts," he said in a statement.
Foley added that the union's committee also supports "nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations that provide research and education to help to create a more informed and just society."
The right-leaning Pioneer Institute estimates that 18 of 20 political action committees in Massachusetts that contribute the most to candidates are labor related. Nearly $5 of $6 in PAC contributions in the state go to Democratic candidates, the group says.
Still, those contributions were dwarfed by spending from independent expenditure committees known as "Super PACs," which poured $6.9 million into election efforts from Jan. 1 to Election Day, most of it backing incumbent Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. The Commonwealth Future PAC, for example, spent more than $6.1 million on behalf of Baker's re-election bid.
Unlike regular political action committees, Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on elections — so long as they don't hand the cash over to candidates or party organizations, or coordinate with them.
One group that didn't spend as heavily was corporations, which are banned from giving money to candidates under Massachusetts law.
Under a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, businesses and unions can make unlimited contributions to independent political committees that do not coordinate with candidates.
But Massachusetts is one of seven states — others are Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana and West Virginia — that ban businesses from making political contributions.
The state Supreme Judicial Court recently upheld the state's ban on corporate contributions following a legal challenge from pro-business groups that argued it was unconstitutional.
Despite the ban, unions and trade organizations can contribute up to $15,000 per candidate each election cycle, while individuals are limited to $1,000 contributions.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.
Top 10 spending ahead of midterms
1. 1199 SEIU MA PAC: $428,576
2. Massachusetts & Northern New England Laborers PAC: $288,586
3. Retired Public Employees PAC: $285,399
4. Committee for a Democratic House: $215,066
5. Electrical Workers, Local 103 PAC: $151,869
6. Pipefitters Local 537 PAC: $121,304
7. Chapter 25 (Teamsters) PAC: $109,840
8. Massachusetts Dental Society PAC: $92,764
9. Ironworkers Union Local 7 PAC: $92,094
10. Electrical Workers Local 2222 PAC: $72,795
Source: Massachusetts Office of Campaigns and Public Finance