Share story

U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene financed her first two congressional races largely with her Microsoft wealth. For her re-election in November, the Medina Democrat so far has kept her money in her pocket to rely instead on donations from what she touts as “an aggressive, grass-roots campaign.”

But Thursday’s entrance by a challenger could test DelBene’s resolve for a populist campaign.

The candidate, Pedro Celis, is a retired Microsoft engineer and former chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly who opposes a higher minimum wage and the Affordable Care Act and supports immigration reform and college financial aid to students who were brought here as children illegally.

Sandeep Kaushik, DelBene’s campaign spokesman, has dismissed Celis as “far too extreme” to represent the 1st District, which is considered evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Nevertheless, DelBene is not swearing off chipping into her campaign treasury again just yet.

“Suzan has made no decision either way about that,” he said.

DelBene is one of the richest members of Congress, ranked 15th in 2012 with a minimum net worth of $23.9 million. She and her husband, Kurt, former president of Microsoft’s Office division, have assets potentially worth as much as $84 million, according to House financial-disclosure reports.

DelBene was one of only four millionaires who financed half or more of their 2012 campaigns and won; 28 other millionaires were defeated and two dropped out, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-finance watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

After pouring $4.5 million into her two races, DelBene for this election has sought to build a broad base of supporters by focusing on jobs training, student loans and other issues important to working-class families. On Feb. 17, her mother-in-law, Joanne DelBene, sent a fundraising pitch seeking contributions of $52 each to mark DelBene’s 52nd birthday.

Yet fundraising records show DelBene raised more money last year from political-action committees (PACs) than from individual donors — more, in fact, than she ever raised from PACs in either of her two previous races.

PAC money from businesses, labor unions and other interest groups accounted for 52 percent of the $951,000 DelBene received in 2013, according to the Federal Election Commission. In DelBene’s two previous races, when she provided half or more of her campaign cash, the PACs’ share of total donations was 10 percent or less.

Kaushik said lack of a challenger has suppressed support from DelBene’s smallest donors. But if and when the contest turns competitive, Kaushik said, he expects her individual donations to surge and to surpass PAC contributions.

“There is a huge ramp-up in donations once the campaign starts to take off,” he said. “We are at a very early stage right now.”

In 2013, small donors — those giving less than $200 — accounted for 13 percent of DelBene’s individual contributions. The rest were larger donations, such as the maximum $5,000 that former Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer and Costco co-founder Jeff Brotman gave to DelBene’s victorious 2012 campaign.

As a first-time candidate, Kaushik said, DelBene leaned heavily on support from her friends and colleagues, particularly in the technology sector. Since then, her fundraising base has grown “massively larger” and she expects to attract much more support from smaller donations.

In 2010, DelBene lost in the 8th District to Auburn Republican Rep. Dave Reichert by a 52-48 margin despite spending 40 percent more than Reichert. She gave regular infusions of cash to her campaign from the start, in amounts ranging from $9 to $1.25 million.

Two years later, she beat Snohomish County Councilmember John Koster after outspending him nearly 3-to-1.

Direct comparisons to DelBene’s earlier fundraising are tricky because she raised money for two years for her 2010 race against Reichert. In 2012, she entered the race 10 months before the election to run for the 1st District seat Jay Inslee vacated to run for governor.

Redistricting placed her home in the 1st District.

By contrast, DelBene’s fundraising for this election cycle includes donations only in 2013, a non-election year whose totals likely will be eclipsed by donations in 2014.

Last year, DelBene raised $457,000 from 1,650 individuals. That compares with $1.14 million from 4,602 individuals who gave during the 10 months leading up to her 2012 victory.

Meanwhile, money from PACs has nearly doubled since DelBene’s maiden 2010 campaign, from $276,060 to $494,332 last year. Kaushik said such a jump is unsurprising, given that “PACs give overwhelmingly to incumbents rather than challengers.”

Several of DelBene’s House colleagues from Washington draw proportionately more PAC money. Democratic Reps. Rick Larsen of Everett and Jim McDermott of Seattle, for instance, have gotten 79 and 75 percent, respectively, of their contributions from PACs in the current cycle.

Corporations make up the largest share of DelBene’s PAC contributions. Among them are Boeing, Comcast, AT&T and Weyerhaeuser. Labor PACs, including the American Federation of Teachers and the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, are another large donor base.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.comTwitter: @KyungMSong