Trying to clean up a sloppily filed fundraising report, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s leadership PAC amended its filing over the weekend, knocking more than $400,000 off its receipts for the first half of the year.
The Tennessee Republican’s Volunteer PAC raised just less than $1.4 million as of June 30, according a report filed Saturday with the Federal Election Commission. That’s nearly double the take of any other Congressional leadership political action committee.
But a report filed late Thursday originally credited the PAC with taking in more than $1.8 million, a mistake based on more than $400,000 collected by Volunteer PAC and earmarked for other Senate candidates.
Once the dust settles from a report that swelled from 279 pages to 454 pages in two days, Frist’s reputation as one of the GOP’s top money men in the nation could be solidified.
The key mistake in the original report from last week was crediting the roughly $420,000 in so-called conduit or earmarked contributions that donors sent to Frist’s PAC, money that was given to him to pass on to other Senate candidates. It’s a common fundraising technique used by ideological PACs such as EMILY’S List, the New Democrat Network and the Club for Growth, but one that should not show up as actual contributions in the receipts side of the PAC’s ledger.
Other lawmakers have used the tactic in recent years as well, most prominently a pair of Democrats with an eye toward future leadership positions who pumped an additional $200,000 or so into candidates’ campaign coffers last cycle: Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who now chairs the Democratic Leadership Council, and Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who considered challenging Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in her ultimately successful bid last fall for the top spot among House Democrats.
But Frist’s conduit campaign, like the traditional side of his leadership PAC, is the most ambitious effort ever launched by a Member of Congress.
Top aides to Frist were unaware that the conduit contributions showed up in the receipts column until late Friday afternoon, when they were contacted by Roll Call for comment about the stunning $1.8 million he reported raising for the period. Recognizing the error, the new report was filed Saturday, showing the new receipts total and including 30 pages of contributions earmarked by Frist’s donors for other candidates.
By bundling contributions in this method, donors get a double bang for their buck: credit for giving the new Majority Leader more than the $5,000 they are limited to giving Volunteer PAC, and credit for giving to some of the toughest Senate races this year.
Frist also gets an additional benefit: the credit of delivering thousands of extra dollars into the bank accounts of his colleagues beyond the $5,000 limit that Volunteer PAC faces.
For example, on April 25 Volunteer PAC cut a $5,000 check to the re-election campaign of Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who could face a potentially difficult challenge depending on whom Democrats recruit. That’s the maximum Frist’s PAC can give Bunning for the primary election, although it can still offer another $5,000 that is designated toward the general election account.
By bundling the conduit contributions from his donors for Bunning’s campaign, however, Frist pumped an additional $89,000 into the Kentucky Republican’s bank account.
Abbott Laboratories PAC cut the maximum $5,000 check to Volunteer PAC on April 23, but about three weeks later, May 14, gained more credit with Frist by writing three more checks totalling $5,000 that were divided up and sent to three Senate campaigns.
While not neatly kept, Frist’s fundraising efforts for and through his leadership PAC are far more aggressive than other Members.
His $1.4 million raised in the six-month period is almost double that of the two most prolific fundraisers in Congress: House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), whose leadership PAC raised $752,000, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), whose PAC pulled in $718,000.
In direct contributions from Volunteer PAC to other GOP candidates and committees, Frist dished out $92,000, giving the maximum $10,000 for the primary and general elections to four Senators, including Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who will likely face the toughest challenge of any incumbent running for re-election.
He also maxed out at $10,000 in donations to Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who is running for Sen. John Edwards’ (D) seat, and he gave $15,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which he chaired in the 2002 cycle.
Frist’s NRSC tenure has paid off in dramatic fundraising fashion considering how he raised the nearly $1.4 million: strictly through so-called institutional investors, the corporate and special interest PACs as well as lobbyists and other wealthy donors.
Frist’s predecessor as Majority Leader, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), also used to raise prodigious sums similar to that of Volunteer PAC, but Lott did it largely through direct-mail pitches. Thousands and thousands of letters went out at a very high price, yielding thousands of small-dollar donations.
Frist barely bothered with small dollars, taking in just $80,000 in donations of less than $200. Wealthy individuals who gave at least $200 accounted for more than $996,000. PACs kicked in an additional $390,000.
Volunteer PAC had more than $1.2 million cash on hand as of June 30. (Clinton’s HILLPAC, by contrast, had $168,434 on hand, and DeLay’s ARMPAC had less than $42,000.)
Frist has so much money at this point that, without lifting a finger for the rest of the election cycle, he could max out to the remaining 29 GOP Senate candidates, as well as the 40 most important House Republican candidates, and still have nearly $400,000 to burn.