Faced with the daunting task of keeping up with the Republican fundraising machine, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) plans to tap business connections he made during his 24 years at Goldman Sachs to keep his party financially competitive.
“Clearly I have to do something to get [the DSCC] to raise more hard money,” Corzine acknowledged in a lengthy interview at his Senate office.
Under restrictions passed in the 107th Congress, the campaign committees are forbidden from raising so-called “soft” — nonfederal — dollars, which were collected in unlimited chunks. As a result the committees must settle for hard-dollar contributions, which can only be harvested in $2,000 increments; Republicans have a much broader base of small-dollar contributors and as a result have considerably outpaced Democrats in hard-money collected over the past several elections.
Corzine rejects the idea that Democrats cannot hope to compete with the GOP in an all-hard-money world.
“There is a much broader network of potential givers to Democratic Senatorial campaigns than what has been tapped into,” he said.
Much of that outreach will be focused on the affluent community of business executives who have traditionally given to Republicans. Corzine was part of that world before running for the Senate in 2000.
In that race, he spent $60 million of his own funds to beat a former Democratic governor in the primary and then-Rep. Bob Franks (R) in the general election.
“Democrats have always from the days of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy talked about a rising tide lifting all boats,” said Corzine. “They bring up the rowboats and the yachts when the tide comes in. I don’t think we have made our case to the American people, including people who have wealth, that Democrats serve their interests well.”
In the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush won 54 percent of the vote to Al Gore’s 43 percent among those making $100,000 a year or more (15 percent of the total electorate). In 1996, then-President Bill Clinton lost this segment of the population 54 percent to 38 percent against former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), even while winning nationwide.
Corzine believes that the limping economy — and the Bush administration’s reaction to it — provide Democrats an opening to this well-to-do group.
“People know something is amiss in the policies,” Corzine said. “This willy-nilly cutting of any tax that walks is a pretty bad economic program.”
Corzine believes his experience at Goldman Sachs, where he began in 1975 as a coffee boy and retired in 1999 as co-chairman and CEO, makes him well-situated to take advantage of discontent in the upper echelons of the business community with Republicans’ economic policy.
“I have both the life experience and the context to translate that [economic] message into a real challenge for people,” Corzine said.
Corzine’s ties to Goldman Sachs paid dividends for his party in the 2002 cycle, as the investment bank allocated 68 percent of its $3 million in campaign contributions to Democrats. But in order to seriously compete with Republicans, Corzine must extend his party’s reach much further into the deep pockets of the business world.
Business groups gave $117 million to the two parties in 2002 — $74 million (63 percent) went to Republicans, $43 million (36 percent) to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2000, $175 million was donated, with Republicans receiving 61 percent of the money.
Corzine offered few specifics about the operational changes he will institute at the DSCC to better mine hard money from the business community, saying only that its direct-mail and Internet programs must be set up in “serious-minded and business-like formats.”
Although the numbers are daunting, Corzine said confidently: “We will be able to make a lot of progress closing the gap between what we were able to raise in a soft-money world and what we need to raise in the world that is now before us.”
Corzine also remains optimistic about the playing field, despite the fact that 19 Democratic Senators are up for re-election — one of whom, Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.), has already announced he is retiring — to only 15 for Republicans.
“I don’t happen to be a believer that because you have more incumbents up you are in more trouble,” Corzine said. “Our incumbents are people that the [voters] of their states have already selected, and I know my colleagues are working to serve their [constituents] in an effective way.”
Recent history is on Corzine’s side. Senate Republicans turned expectations on their head in 2002, picking up two seats despite having six more to defend than Democrats.
The DSCC’s biggest problem heading into 2004, Corzine said, is not the number of Senators up for re-election but rather the number of his colleagues either running — or contemplating a run — for president.
“That leaves all kinds of question marks, some of them legal, some of them dealing with political fallout if things don’t work out the way they want,” explained Corzine.
Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and John Edwards (N.C.) are already in the race, and Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.) was considered an all-but-announced candidate before his upcoming heart surgery dampened expectations somewhat.
Both Edwards and Graham are up for re-election in 2004, and there would be ultra-competitive races if either vacated his seat. Under North Carolina law, Edwards is able to simultaneously run for president and Senate — a luxury Graham does not have.
Not all news from the presidential sweepstakes has been bad for Corzine, however, as Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) took his name out of contention and announced he would run for Senate again. Corzine said Daschle’s decision has infused the Democratic Caucus with new energy.
“On a scale of one to 10, it was an 11,” he said. “When Tom asks my colleagues to help on this process, they see that he has given his day at the salt mines. They know he has made choices for their benefit, not his own.”
On a practical level, Daschle’s decision ensures that the DSCC will continue to draw on his powerful fundraising apparatus. Over the past two years, Daschle donated $2.5 million from his leadership political action committee to the DSCC and to candidates.
Daschle’s decision also greatly improves Democrats’ chances of holding his seat in 2004. Former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.), who lost to Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) by 524 votes in 2002, is contemplating a challenge.
Daschle played a key role in re-electing Johnson and became the target of a number of Republican groups.
“The demonization of Daschle is going to come back to bite the people who practiced it,” Corzine predicted.
Now, Corzine must work quickly to staunch other Democratic retirements, as open seats are more vulnerable to party switches. Signifying the importance of open seats to Democrats’ hopes, Corzine let loose an emotional outburst rare for someone so soft-spoken. He called the upcoming Georgia contest for Miller’s seat“an absolute combat on principle.”
Corzine described the campaign run by then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee against Sen. Max Cleland (D) last year as “one of the most inciting, motivating drivers that we as Democrats could have.”
Democrats took significant umbrage to an ad picturing Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden that appeared to question Cleland’s patriotism. Cleland lost three limbs in the Vietnam War. Chambliss won a surprisingly strong victory, boosting Republican hopes for 2004.
In other states, the name most often mentioned as a potential Democratic retiree is Sen. Fritz Hollings (S.C.), who remains undecided about a bid for an eighth term. Rep. Jim DeMint (R) is expected to run regardless of whether Hollings seeks re-election; Corzine is trying to persuade his colleague to try again.
“I am trying to be as convincing as I can,” he said.