U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., doesn't accept contributions from political-action committees, but donors with special interests are still giving to her re-election campaign.

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WASHINGTON — From her first race for the U.S. Senate in 2000, Maria Cantwell has rejected money from political-action committees (PACs), saying at the time she would rather talk to voters in Washington state than hit up special interests for campaign contributions.

Today, the biggest blocks of campaign donations to Cantwell are funneled by a pair of liberal-leaning political groups and ActBlue, an online fundraising site for Democratic candidates. And 60 percent of Cantwell’s itemized donations last year came from out of state, one of the highest totals among Senate incumbents in the current election cycle.

In addition, Cantwell’s ban on PAC money hasn’t kept her from collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from executives at corporations with stakes in alternative energy, biotechnology, aviation and other issues over which her committees have jurisdiction.

Special-interest backing

The upshot: Cantwell, like most members of Congress, is well backed by special interests. And the Democrat, who is running for a third term, remains a tireless fundraiser despite facing two Republican challengers with only shoestring campaigns.

Cantwell is expected to leapfrog even farther ahead of her rivals when first-quarter fundraising tallies are reported this month. She had $4 million in cash left at the end of December. By contrast, Michael Baumgartner, a freshman state senator from Spokane who is her main Republican challenger, had $100,000 on hand.

Cantwell has reaped political currency from her sometimes-nonconformist reputation. For instance, two public-interest groups released a report last month on corporate tax loopholes, naming top “dirty thirty” companies that collectively had a negative tax rate.

The report found that 98 percent of the 534 sitting members of Congress — but not Cantwell — had taken $41 million in contributions since 2006 from the corporate PACs of those 30 companies.

But senior executives at seven of the companies gave individual donations to Cantwell’s campaign in 2011, according to the Federal Election Commission. Among them were the CEOs of FedEx, Duke Energy, Corning and Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

That shows Cantwell’s anti-PAC stance hasn’t silenced donors with special interests, said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, an open-government group in Washington, D.C.

“I think it’s more for show than substance,” Allison said. “Clearly there are other ways that groups can get around” the senator’s ban on PAC money.

Individuals can give federal candidates $2,500 for each primary and general election, for a total of $5,000. PACs, which typically are funded by corporate or union treasuries, can give double that.

Biggest single source

By far the biggest single source of Cantwell’s fundraising last year was ActBlue, a political-action committee that acts as an online conduit for individuals who want to give to Democratic candidates. ActBlue “bundled” $365,000 for Cantwell while another $83,000 was earmarked through EMILY’s List, which helps elect abortion-rights female lawmakers. The League of Conservation Voters, a pro-environmental group, collected $42,500 on Cantwell’s behalf.

Rose Kapolczynski, Cantwell’s campaign spokeswoman, drew a distinction between taking money from PACs and taking money bundled by political committees.

“EMILY’s List is not determining which candidate deserves the money. It’s all directed by individual members,” Kapolczynski said. “Sen. Cantwell continues to refuse PAC contributions because she believes many of these organizations have too much influence on politics.”

PAC money rejected

Cantwell swore off PAC money in May 2000, when she was preparing to take on incumbent Republican Sen. Slade Gorton. She poured $10.3 million of her own money into that campaign. Since then, Cantwell has strongly supported campaign-finance reform, including full disclosure of secretive donors who give to political groups that operate independently of candidates’ campaigns.

Kapolczynski contends Cantwell isn’t beholden to groups that funnel contributions because they account for a fraction of her overall campaign funds.

Yet clout can attach to those who deliver, not just sign, campaign checks, argues Paul Ryan, associate legal counsel with Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that promotes transparency in campaign-finance law.

“Bundled contributions carry access and influence with elected officials,” Ryan said.

Indeed, Allison, of the Sunlight Foundation, argues that bundling donations amplifies the groups’ influence by enabling them to turn small-sum donations into a major purse.

In all, ActBlue, EMILY’s List and the League of Conservation Voters served as a conduit for $490,000 in donations, or nearly 10 percent of the $5.2 million Cantwell raised last year.

The three “are interest groups with clearly identifiable interests,” Allison said. “These groups are potentially going to have bigger impact on candidates.”

Cantwell is among the top Senate recipients of campaign contributions from employees and executives of law firms, lobbyists, and securities and financial companies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.

Executives at many of the top lobbying firms in Washington state as well as Washington, D.C., made multiple contributions to Cantwell’s campaign last year. They include McBee Strategies, Denny Miller Associates, Strategies 360, Washington2 Advocates, Patton Boggs and Podesta Group.

Cantwell regularly crisscrosses the country to raise money, sometimes in concert with other Democratic candidates and often in the homes of well-heeled supporters. Her donor list has more than its share of boldface names.

Among those who gave in 2011 are billionaire George Soros, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, actress Kate Capshaw, novelist Judith Krantz and Celerie Kemble, a New York society interior decorator.

Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com