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More and More Freshmen Opening Leadership PACs

Leadership PACs haven’t been just for “leaders” for a few years, but now they’ve become so commonplace that it’s standard practice for freshman Senators.

Of the 10 Senators who first joined the chamber since the election, six said in recent interviews that they have opened, or are in the process of opening, leadership political action committees to begin helping other candidates with the arduous task of raising money.

The remaining four freshman Senators said they were considering opening a leadership political action committee or simply waiting for the Federal Election Commission to complete its review of regulations regarding these types of political committees before opening their own PAC. By the end of the year all 10 freshmen could doling out contributions from their leadership PACs.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), appointed to her seat by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), opened the Denali PAC on May 22, not even six months into the two years left on her father’s term. Murkowski is likely to face a difficult race in her election bid in the fall of 2004, so she said most of her political time would be spent raising money for her official campaign committee — but she added that she wanted to at least have her leadership PAC in place in case she had the opportunity in the next year or so to help other candidates.

“Have I done anything with it yet? No, but I set it up and named it,” she said of Denali PAC, named for the Alaskan mountain range.

Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) beat her to the punch by two days, opening his Daniel Webster PAC on May 20, according to FEC filings. A three-term House Member before winning his Senate seat, Sununu is no stranger to the ways of raising money and the role that leadership PACs can play. While in the House, he co-founded PAC ’96 with several other GOP classmates elected to the chamber in 1996.

Now, he’s branched out on his own as a Senator, with the Daniel Webster PAC having just begun its intake of contributions. Sununu said his report for the first half of the year would be small — “more than $10,000 but certainly it’s less than $50,000.”

“The goal is to raise enough money to make a difference in a few key races,” Sununu said, estimating that there would be about a dozen critical races to determining the majority for the chamber this cycle.

Because of the new campaign laws that outlaw soft-money donations from corporations, unions and other special interests, the party campaign committees will not have nearly as much money to spend in states where there are competitive races. Those new rules make it even more imperative for individual candidates to raise more dollars for their own campaigns in the limited, regulated chunks of $5,000 per primary and $5,000 per general election from PACs.

During the orientation period between last Election Day and swearing-in day Jan. 7, officials from the National Republican Senatorial Committee briefed the incoming freshman class of GOP Senators on the new rules, according to aides. There was a subtle suggestion to the new Senators that it would be a good idea to open their own leadership PACs as a way to pump more money into the campaign coffers of fellow Republican candidates, a message that was generally well received.

“The ban on soft money makes these [leadership PACs] even more important,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who opened his Alamo PAC on June 4.

Once the province of only the top leaders in Congress, or those who were immediately aspiring to be in leadership, so-called leadership PACs have grown to be very commonplace in today’s Congress. They’re so common that the top campaign finance Web site, PoliticalMoneyLine.com, no longer calls them “leadership” PACs; they’re simply “politician” PACs.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) said he is opening the North Star PAC, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is in the process of opening Tenn PAC. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) has decided to just keep open the leadership PAC that he used during his four terms in the House, the Common Sense Leadership Fund.

The lone true freshman for Senate Democrats, Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), said he has thought about opening a leadership PAC and has been encouraged to do so, but is waiting to make sure what the final rules were regarding leadership PACs before opening one.

Of course, like many Senate newcomers, Pryor admitted to a bit of fundraising fatigue from his last campaign and was happy not to have too much pressure on the money front right now. “For 18 months we raised money and raised money. Right now, I don’t even want to think about it,” he said.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.) also suggested that they want to know what the final rules would be before setting up their own PACs, although a new PAC was almost a certainty. “We want to make sure of the legal status,” Talent said.

“Whatever the laws are, we’ll follow them,” Graham said.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) also said it is likely just a matter of time before she would have a PAC of her own. “I’m thinking about it, but I haven’t done it yet,” she said.

The FEC is looking at putting out new rules on leadership PACs, but most of the commissioners so far seem to be focused on reining in the practice of presidential contenders using the PACs as a safe haven for storing their campaign staff and paying for political travels several years ahead of the actual campaign. Some commissioners have floated the idea of setting a minimum requirement for percentages of donations to candidates, preventing White House candidates from spending all their leadership PAC money on themselves.

Even Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), an 18-year Senate veteran before a two-year hiatus between tenures, said he is thinking about opening a leadership PAC. Lautenberg, a multimillionaire, said for now he is helping out candidates with his own money. He also wants to focus his fundraising efforts at retiring some of the debt that he has left-over from the $1.5 million he loaned his own campaign last October.

“I’d like to get that damn debt paid off,” he quipped.

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