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NCRS Remains On Hold

The future of a group aimed at pushing Republican issues both in the Senate and on the campaign trail remains in limbo as its organizers wait for a final signal from the Supreme Court about the future of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

The National Committee for a Responsible Senate was formed just prior to the 2002 election and was seen as the likely recipient of the unlimited soft-dollar contributions that the National Republican Senatorial Committee was banned from accepting by BCRA.

But, in the intervening seven months, the group has hired no staff and done no fundraising, while similar groups assembled by Democrats have moved forward aggressively.

Republicans say privately that donors are wary of contributing to a group that may become irrelevant if the new campaign law is struck down, and organizers are well aware that the NRSC would be looking to the same contributors if that happens.

One GOP strategist familiar with the group’s inner workings said it has adopted a “wait-and-see” approach out of necessity.

“You can go full throttle and not materially advance yourself because the broader political community is watching and waiting,” the strategist added.

Several sources consulted about the future of the NCRS affirmed that it would likely develop into a full-blown entity but were less certain about how large a role it would play in the 2004 election and beyond.

“The question is whether it becomes a major player or simply another player,” said a Republican strategist.

The uncertainty surrounding BCRA and the pending Supreme Court review, which will be heard in September, as well as the controversy surrounding the Leadership Forum, a group with strong staff connections to the National Republican Congressional Committee, has made the founders of the NCRS cautious about proceeding with significant fundraising, sources said late last week.

Democrats have moved more quickly to collect the soft-money donations previously given to the party committees.

Both the Democratic Senate Majority Fund and the New House PAC have held events with Members to raise hard money for their efforts. Each has a soft-money, 527 component as well, which under BCRA cannot have involvement with Members of Congress.

On May 13, the DSMF held a hard-dollar fundraiser in Washington with 18 Senators, including Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) and Minority Whip Harry Reid (Nev.). The group has also done several other “meet-and-greet” events with Members, although money has not been raised at those gatherings, sources confirmed last week.

“Our focus this year is on creating relationships, familiarizing prospective contributors with our organization, and educating people about our objectives and mission,” said the group’s executive director, Marc Farinella. “We are raising the funds we need to operate and grow, and that’s exactly what we knew we would have to do to be successful.”

The New House PAC, run by former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Executive Director Howard Wolfson, held a late April fundraiser with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), its only event featuring Members so far this year. Wolfson would not discuss any details regarding the financial state of his organization.

The federal side of both organizations must file fundraising reports with the Federal Election Commission by July 15.

A slew of other fundraising entities featuring major players in Democratic politics have also cropped up. These include the American Majority Institute — led by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta — and the Partnership for America’s Families, a labor-oriented group headed by former AFL-CIO official Steve Rosenthal.

Much of the Democratic urgency is born out of the growing hard-money discrepancy between their party committees and those of Republicans.

In the 2002 cycle, the three Republican party committees raised $332 million in hard dollars to $163 million for Democrats. To this point in the current cycle, the results have been similar.

As a result of that disparity, GOP operatives are content to wait for the court decision rather than risk potential violations of the new law.

The NCRS was formed at the end of October as a 501(c)6 organization, a nonprofit group that is allowed to accept unlimited donations without revealing the source of the dollars.

Three attorneys with the Washington powerhouse law firm Patton Boggs LLP — Christopher Hellmich, Eric Kuwana and Sean Clancy — founded the group. All three work under GOP lawyer Ben Ginsberg at the firm; Ginsberg is one of a handful of operatives closely involved in the organization, according to several sources. He did not return a call for comment.

The example set by the Leadership Forum stands as a cautionary tale to those with an interest in the NCRS.

Days before the 2002 election, the NRCC made a $1 million soft-money contribution to the group, which is headed by Susan Hirschmann, former chief of staff to Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and former Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.).

A number of campaign finance watchdogs protested the donation as an attempted skirting of BCRA, which went into effect on the day after the election.

The group gave the money back to the NRCC at the end of 2002; the FEC later dismissed a complaint that the Leadership Forum and the NRCC had purposely attempted to evade the law with the $1 million transfer.

Republican sources confirmed that the forum has had almost no other activity in the first six months of the year but is preparing to ramp up in the coming weeks.

Sources close to all four of the committees cautioned that in past cycles the majority of the soft-money contributions came during the election year not in the off year.

In the 2002 campaign, the DSCC and DCCC had raised a combined $23 million in soft money through June 2001. The NRSC and NRCC had brought in $31 million.

“We expect that the spade work we are doing now will result in significant financial strength for our organization by the time the election approaches,” predicted Farinella.

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