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A Trial Run for NRSC Chair?

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) is working closely with the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, mounting an effort to pry more money from the organization for Republican candidates and stoking speculation that the South Carolina freshman is laying the groundwork to become the next chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Graham has been working primarily with Elizabeth Humphrey, a Republican lobbyist for ATLA, but is also in contact with John Weaver, who serves as a consultant to the organization.

Weaver, one of the top advisers to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2000 presidential campaign, said in a brief interview that he had “great affection” for Graham. The South Carolina Senator was one of the most prominent backers of McCain’s presidential bid, although his support was not enough to keep George W. Bush from winning the Palmetto State’s presidential primary. Graham and Weaver struck up a friendship during that campaign.

Weaver switched parties after the 2000 election and did work for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2002 cycle.

Weaver was quick to note that he wasn’t currently working directly with Graham and had no plans to do so. “I am a Democrat and he is a Republican,” said Weaver.

Graham did not return calls for comment on this story.

Current NRSC Chairman George Allen (Va.) cannot serve a second term as he must stand for re-election next cycle. Others who have expressed an interest in the post, including Sens. John Ensign (Nev.) and Conrad Burns (Mont.), are also up in 2006 and not eligible.

That leaves the race without a clear frontrunner; Graham and Sen. Norm Coleman (Minn.) are considered strong candidates for the post.

Both were elected in 2002; Graham cruised to an open-seat victory, while Coleman defeated former Sen. Walter Mondale (D) in a race created by the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) just 12 days before the election.

Graham’s attempt to make inroads with a group that has traditionally been one of the most lavish and dependable contributors to the Democratic Caucus presents both political opportunities and risks for the South Carolina lawmaker, himself a lawyer who served in the Air Force JAG Corps.

Clearly, Republicans would do well to chip into the treasure trove of campaign funds doled out by trial lawyers, and there appear to be early signs that such an effort could bear fruit. The ATLA annual convention earlier this month in San Francisco, a gathering of Republican trial lawyers that was originally expected to draw 30 guests, saw three times that number show up.

In the 2002 cycle, however, ATLA’s political action committee donated $2.5 million to Democratic candidates and just $300,000 to Republicans.

The PAC gave to six Republican Senators last cycle; only Graham and Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.) got the maximum $10,000 contribution. Sens. Richard Shelby (Ala.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Pat Roberts (Kan.), Mike DeWine (Ohio) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) also accepted ATLA PAC donations.

But, Graham is also walking a fine line between harvesting the dollars that are the life’s blood of campaign politics and identifying too closely with a group that is looked upon with scorn by many in the Republican establishment.

Republicans regularly castigate their Democratic counterparts for their financial closeness to trial lawyers, arguing that opposition to tort reform and other GOP-favored initiatives comes as a result of this too-friendly relationship.

“Graham is walking on very hot coals,” warned one Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Graham’s courting of the trial lawyer community is the latest step in his aggressive efforts to raise money for both the NRSC and GOP candidates.

Earlier this year, Graham was named chairman of the President’s Roundtable, a program aimed at mid-level NRSC donors whose price of entry is $5,000 for an individual and $7,500 for a couple.

In his June quarterly report, Graham doled out $500 to Sen. Jim Bunning’s (R-Ky.) re-election campaign and $5,000 to a political action committee set up on behalf of lobbyist Haley Barbour (R), who is running for governor in Mississippi.

Graham’s activity on the fundraising front comes after his strong advocacy while in the House for the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which passed both bodies in the 107th Congress.

McCain — along with Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D) — was the prime mover behind the bill in the Senate.

The law bans the raising and spending of soft money by the national party committees. Prior to this cycle, the campaign outlets could collect huge checks from a handful of individuals to finance their efforts, particularly issue-advocacy campaigns.

In September, the Supreme Court is set to hear an appeal to BCRA, and its decision could ultimately have an effect on Graham’s chances at the NRSC.

“[Graham] would be good unless soft money is restored,” said a senior GOP strategist, who added that because of Graham’s vehement opposition to non-federal contributions, he would likely have a “problem” winning the chairmanship in a soft-money world.

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