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Frist Looks To ’04

After focusing the first months of his tenure on parliamentary intricacies, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is ramping up his fundraising machine and political operation.

Aides say his leadership political action committee, Volunteer PAC, raised nearly $1.2 million in the first half of the year, doubling the take of some other prominent Senate leadership PACs. He has already been the main attraction at fundraising events for several of his colleagues, with two more on the near-term agenda.

And Frist is also in talks with the National Republican Senatorial Committee to define his role in boosting their efforts, discussions which included a meeting Tuesday focusing specifically on how Frist can best help in recruiting top-tier challengers for next year’s races.

All this comes after the December shakeup in the GOP leadership team that left Frist, 51, in charge of a chamber that he was hardly an expert at managing, having instead honed his political skills at the NRSC in the 107th Congress. A parliamentary neophyte, Frist hunkered down in the winter and early spring in an effort to master the rules and tactics for managing the unwieldy chamber.

“He essentially took the first 90 days off from political fundraising,” said Mitch Bainwol, Frist’s chief of staff for the first few months of the year. “He focused on the new role, the official part of it.”

But Frist, given his past chairmanship of the NRSC, knows the value that top leaders can play in the campaign efforts. In the 2002 cycle, Frist benefited from having a politically active Majority Leader, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), and Majority Whip, Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), both of whom went to great lengths to raise money and make appearances on behalf of candidates.

“He will be very driven to support the committee in the same way the past leadership team was supportive of his requests,” said Bainwol, who served as Frist’s executive director at the NRSC.

Relatively new to politics by leadership standards — his first-ever political campaign was his 1994 Senate bid — Frist does not have dozens of former aides littered throughout the K Street lobbying community or the consulting world to serve as a political network. He instead relies on a close-knit group of advisers, many of whom worked for him at the Senate campaign committee.

Bainwol is now a lobbyist and consultant but remains a top outside political adviser to Frist. Linus Catignani, who was the committee’s finance director, has taken over the top fundraising role for Volunteer PAC. And Alex Vogel, Frist’s counsel at the NRSC who now has the same role in the Leader’s office, serves as his legal eyes and ears to assure Frist doesn’t run afoul of the thicket of new campaign laws.

Frist’s first major political event of the year was a late-April weekend in Tennessee for Volunteer PAC, but he also turned it into a benefit for five Senate GOP incumbents up for election in 2004: Kit Bond (Mo.), Jim Bunning (Ky.), Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Arlen Specter (Pa.).

On June 16, he brought Bond to New York for an event with donors he had cultivated in his role at the NRSC, a day that Bond called a “good one.”

“The relationships he made and built were a big help,” Bond said, declining to specify how much he brought in from the event.

Next up on the rubber-chicken circuit for Frist are events for Bunning and Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio).

He’s even helped raise money for someone who needs no assistance when it comes to campaign finances: Nickles, who is considering retirement. One of the most prodigious Republican fundraisers, Nickles saw Frist assume the post he had long coveted in the aftermath of Lott’s demise.

Frist was the guest speaker at a recent event for Nickles, who had previously done virtually no fundraising for his 2004 re-election.

“It was a nice event,” Nickles said of the Frist fundraiser, declining to be pinned down on his plans. “You never know.”

Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the consensus GOP candidate to challenge Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) or the Democratic nominee should Edwards retire from the Senate, said he didn’t bother Frist in the early months of the year when Burr made up his mind to run because Frist was so busy with his new duties and the jam-packed floor schedule of leftover appropriations, judges and budget fights.

Now, however, Burr said he is looking to expand his fundraising beyond North Carolina’s borders and just last week hit up Frist to make some calls to Tennessee donors on his behalf. “I think you’re going to see him get more and more involved,” Burr said.

The most direct way Frist has been involved early on is through donations from Volunteer PAC to Senate incumbents, eight of whom have collected a total of $65,000 so far from Frist’s leadership PAC, according to figures provided by the leader’s allies. Another $15,000 has been doled out to the NRSC, the maximum that can be given in one year.

With new campaign laws forbidding unlimited soft-money contributions, money from leadership PACs is more important to candidates than ever before, with donation limits of $5,000 for a primary and $5,000 for the general election.

By raising $1.2 million in such short order for Volunteer PAC, Frist has demonstrated his own personal fundraising prowess, nearly matching his goal of $1.5 million for the entire year in just six months. With his NRSC background, the business community has rushed to support Frist — $342,000 worth of Volunteer PAC’s contributions, about 30 percent of the total, came from other PACs.

Most Members’ leadership PACs won’t file their reports for the first half of the year until July 15, but several top officials file their leadership PAC reports monthly, and, as of May 30, they didn’t appear to have raised anywhere near the amount Frist had brought in.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.), who has ramped up his political work in the past two years, brought in $564,000 by May 30 for his leadership PAC. Lott remains politically active outside of leadership, raising $605,000 in the first five months for his PAC, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) Keep Our Majority PAC had brought in $432,000 by the end of May.

Frist will need to keep up the voracious fundraising pace in order to fill the void left by the departures of Lott and Nickles from the leadership, who are still active but not expected to be anywhere near as prolific on the political circuit as they were in years past, when a not-so-subtle rivalry pushed the two men to compete.

Last cycle, Lott and Nickles’ leadership PACs combined to dish out more than $1 million to candidates and GOP committees, and both made sizable transfers from their re-election committees to the NRSC.

Frist knows that no matter how much legislative work gets accomplished on the floor, the only result that matters in determining his success or failure as leader will come at the polls in November 2004.

“He’s finding the role of leader to be very rewarding,” Bainwol said, “but he would probably find it a whole lot more satisfying with two or three more seats to work with.”

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