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NRCC Jumps at Chance to Use Earmarking PAC

Though it was ostensibly about the presidential contest, a recent advisory opinion from the Federal Election Commission could significantly alter the way party committees inject themselves into competitive House and Senate primaries.

The Oct. 9 opinion concerned a new political action committee, called WE LEAD, that was started by a group of Democratic women with the aim of collecting earmarked hard-dollar contributions that will automatically be transferred to whoever wins the Democratic presidential nomination.

The FEC approved the venture, paving the way for national party committees or other interested groups to create similar PACs to funnel money to Congressional candidates.

Wasting little time, the National Republican Congressional Committee has already established the Kentucky-6 Republican General Election Committee, a PAC that will collect money for the 6th district GOP primary winner if Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R) wins the governor’s race and a special election is called to fill his seat.

“The belief is that it will be a very short election calendar,” said NRCC spokesman Carl Forti. “This will provide whoever emerges from the primary with a ready-to-go campaign.”

Fletcher’s district seems as good a place as any to test out the new form of PAC. If the lawmaker takes the statehouse, he would be sworn in Dec. 8 and the special election to replace him in the House would likely happen in February 2004.

At least four Republicans are seen as potential candidates, and, rather than having a traditional primary, the state GOP executive committee would select the party’s nominee. [IMGCAP(1)]

At last week’s House Republican Conference meeting, NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) told lawmakers about the creation of the Kentucky committee, which will be geared toward Member giving.

WE LEAD and Kentucky-6 will both solicit hard-dollar contributions earmarked for the eventual nominee in their respective targeted contests. If, for example, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean wins the Democratic presidential nomination, a donor who has given $1,000 to WE LEAD will see that money go to Dean and will have that money count against the donor’s $2,000 contribution limit to Dean for the general election.

Because the money will technically be recorded as going from the donor to the candidate, WE LEAD will be able to present the Democratic nominee with money far in excess of the normal PAC contribution limit.

“The basic issue we had to confront was, can a PAC collect earmarked contributions when they don’t know to whom they’ll be forwarding those funds?” said Michael Toner, a Republican FEC commissioner who strongly supported the opinion.

Toner painted the FEC’s action as part of an effort to deal with the post-campaign finance reform landscape.

“What we often hear is there’s a very short period of time to raise funds for the general election,” Toner said. “In a 100 percent hard-dollar world, every effort has to be made to broaden the opportunities for grassroots donors to contribute.”

Of the four Congressional committees, only the NRCC has actually tested the waters by creating a new earmarking PAC. Officials at the other three are still studying the issue.

“It’s certainly something we’re looking at, but we haven’t made any decisions,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Michael Siegel.

A National Republican Senatorial Committee aide said his committee is also “exploring” the possibility of establishing such PACs.

For the NRSC, Georgia and South Carolina would be the most obvious settings for earmarking arrangements. Both states have competitive GOP fields gunning for open Senate seats. The Illinois open-seat Senate race, meanwhile, boasts crowded primary slates on both sides of the aisle.

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