As Kevin Strouse jumped into a high-profile congressional race in Bucks County, his parents sent $10,400 last June to the campaign of U.S. Rep. Ami Bera, a California Democrat in another closely contested district.
Two days later, Strouse's campaign got the same amount, $10,400, from Bera's parents.
The pattern was repeated at least three other times last year, campaign finance records show. In each, Strouse's parents - who had never before donated to federal candidates beyond Pennsylvania - sent money to Democrats in tight congressional races in Colorado, Florida, and Illinois.
Days before or after, those candidates' parents sent nearly identical contributions - usually for the maximum allowed - to Strouse's campaign.
The donations appear legal, campaign finance experts say, though two said any agreement among the parents to trade donations could be viewed as an attempted end run around contribution limits.
If nothing else, they illustrate how a candidate's parents could help fill his or her campaign coffers after already giving the maximum individual donation.
"What it would turn on is whether or not there was a specific understanding and this was a deal," said Larry Noble, former general counsel to the Federal Election Commission. "How do they know each other? Why did they do it? What was the timing of it?"
Exactly how the parents of candidates in far-flung congressional races aimed nearly matching donations at one another's children is unclear.
Strouse, his campaign and his parents did not respond to multiple requests for interviews, including two left at Robert and Norma Strouse's home in Glenmoore. Parents of two other candidates - one in Illinois and the other in California - hung up when contacted by The Inquirer. Two others did not return calls left for comment.
The only clear link between the parents is that their children are each running in House districts deemed priorities by national Democrats.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Monday declined to discuss the contributions or say if the party had a role introducing the parents or directing their donations.
Instead, it released a two-line statement that said: "Our Red to Blue and Emerging candidates are on the vanguard of the fight to put solutions ahead of reckless brinkmanship and fight for middle-class families. As the top tier pickup opportunities in the country, these races generate tremendous enthusiasm from our allies and candidates' own networks."
Strouse, 34, a handpicked DCCC candidate who moved to the district from the District of Columbia last year, is locked in a fight with businesswoman Shaughnessy Naughton, 35, to be the party's nominee in the Eighth District.
The May 20 primary winner will face the Republican incumbent, Mike Fitzpatrick, in the fall contest.
Robert and Norma Strouse hit the donation limit - $2,600 per person per election - for their son in April 2013, just as the first-time candidate, a former Army Ranger, filed to run for the seat.
In all, Strouse's parents have given $49,400 to eight Democrats running in priority House races this year - not counting $10,400 to their son. The parents of at least four of those candidates donated $28,400 to Strouse.
In almost every case, the donations were dated just days before the campaigns were scheduled to file finance reports to the FEC - a time candidates and committees traditionally ramp up fund-raising so they can boast about swollen war chests.
In June, Robert Strouse sent $5,200 to the campaign of U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D., Fla.). (The Floridian is no relation to the former Bucks County congressman with the same name.) Four days later, Murphy's father, Thomas P. Murphy Jr., sent an identical campaign contribution to Kevin Strouse.
In September and December, Strouse's parents sent checks to the campaign of Ann Callis, a Democratic challenger in Illinois. Within days, Callis' parents sent nearly identical amounts back to Strouse's campaign.
Reached at home Sunday night, Lance Callis at first explained the donation by saying Strouse might have sent him political information he agreed with. But he declined to elaborate and hung up.
Robert Strouse also gave $5,200 - again the maximum - to House candidate Andrew Romanoff of Colorado on Oct. 3. That was sent four days after Romanoff's mother had contributed $2,600 to the Strouse campaign.
For Romanoff's mother, Gayle Caplan, it was the first time she had given to a federal candidate other than her son and President Obama. When contacted at home in California on Sunday, Caplan said, "I don't talk to reporters," and hung up.
Bera's parents were not home and could not be reached. The Bera, Callis, and Romanoff campaigns did not respond to requests for comment Monday. Murphy's campaign declined to comment.
Strouse's parents have also donated to four other top-tier Democrats who, according to FEC records, do not appear to have given back to Kevin Strouse.
The other parents have also been generous. Like the Strouses, the Beras and Lance Callis have also given to multiple campaigns this cycle, usually helping candidates named as Democratic priorities for 2014. All three families, for example, gave to U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz (D., Calif.).
Lance Callis and Bera's father, Babulal Bera, each gave to the reelection campaign of Murphy, the Florida congressman. Murphy's mother, Leslie, also sent $5,200 to Ami Bera.
Brett Kappel, an election law attorney at Arent Fox, said he was not aware of any case where donors were prosecuted civilly or criminally for trading donations. But he said an explicit agreement among the parents regarding the donations "would be problematic."
Two other experts said that even with an agreement, the parents would be within their rights.
"As long as the money comes from the person that is reported as its source, and the money is kept by the candidate that receives it, those types of cooperative agreements are not illegal," said Paul S. Ryan, a senior counsel at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. "I don't think it is at all unusual in politics for, say, members of the Democratic caucus in Congress to encourage their donors to support their colleagues."
Said Ronald Jacobs, a political law attorney at Washington firm Venable: "Even if there was an agreement, I have a hard time figuring out what law would be broken there."
For Strouse, the donations from other candidates' parents equal about 4 percent of the nearly $765,000 he had raised through May 8.
His father, Robert, is an Army veteran and former partner at the law firm Drinker Biddle. He's now the president at Wind River Holdings, an investment firm based in King of Prussia.
Robert Strouse has given to both Democrats and Republicans in the past, FEC records show. His wife, Norma, had made just one federal donation.
Three Democratic political operatives contacted by The Inquirer said they had never heard of exchanges of donations by parents, though they all said it was common for lawmakers to trade PAC contributions and for wealthy donors to use deals to mutually support chosen causes.
"It's a way for rich friends to say, 'Whom do you want me to give to? And you give to my guys,'" said Neil Oxman, a Philadelphia political consultant. "It is not unusual."