Frist PAC Tops $2.4M in 2003

Posted February 2, 2004 at 6:36pm

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) solidified his position last year as the top money man in Congress in terms of leadership political action committees, raking in more than $2.4 million.

Frist’s Volunteer PAC has supplanted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) ARMPAC as the top committee in dollars raised, putting the Senate leader in position to spend millions of dollars to try to boost the GOP majority in November.

For Democrats, two of the party’s most recognizable faces, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Edward Kennedy (Mass.), have emerged as the most prolific leadership PAC fundraisers, although their hauls of about $1.2 million each fell far short of the totals posted by Frist and DeLay, who collected more than $2.1 million.

In another sign of the GOP’s increasing stranglehold on the political money chase, 21 leadership PACS raised more than $500,000 last year, and 16 were run by Congressional Republicans, according to an analysis of new filings with the Federal Election Commission.

This gives Republicans a big leg up on donations to critical races. For example, the three top Republicans in the House — DeLay, Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) — collectively donated more than $1 million to candidates and party committees last year. By contrast, the top three House Democrats — Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) — gave $515,000 to the Democratic cause.

The so-called leadership PACs can’t be used for Members’ re-election efforts but are instead used to make donations to party committees, incumbents and candidates, helping gain chits for support in future endeavors such as leadership races or endorsements in presidential bids.

And for Frist, who expects to leave the Senate at the end of his current term in 2006, his political future and any presidential aspirations could very well be determined by his success or failure at giving the Republicans a comfortable majority in the chamber.

Frist honed his fundraising skills as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2002 cycle and, since becoming Majority Leader last year, used Volunteer PAC as his primary political vehicle. After raising $1.4 million in the first half of 2003, he took in more than $1 million the second half of the year.

He has not been as generous as DeLay or Hastert with his money, giving just $191,000 to GOP candidates and party committees. DeLay was far and away tops again for donations from his committee, Americans for a Republican Majority PAC, doling out $436,619 to candidates and committees, while Hastert dished out $318,000.

But Frist’s Volunteer PAC was sitting on more than $1.7 million at the end of December, a stunningly large chunk of cash. That’s $1 million more than DeLay or Hastert had in the bank at the end of the year.

At the pace he’s raising money, Frist will be able to max out — $10,000 split between the primary and general elections — to all 34 GOP Senate candidates as well as the top 30 or 40 House races. He’ll still then have hundreds of thousands of dollars to pump into state and local races.

Even if Frist was to decide to launch a 2008 presidential campaign after leaving the Senate, there’s little incentive to keep a big cash-on-hand account in Volunteer PAC. Unlike official re-election committees, leftover funds in leadership PACs cannot be transferred into presidential campaigns.

Frist has also aggressively embarked on a campaign to bundle “conduit” contributions to other Senate campaigns.

In this practice, Frist directs his top financial supporters to cut checks to the Senate campaigns he deems most in need of cash, bundles together those checks and mails them off to the campaigns. Those contributions are not technically from Frist’s Volunteer PAC — they do not count in the receipts ledger of the committee — but the recipients know exactly who raised the cash.

In 2003, Frist steered more than $525,000 in conduit contributions from his donors to the top Senate races. In the second half of 2003, for example, Frist’s supporters pumped $28,000 into the campaign of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is facing the toughest election battle of any GOP incumbent. And Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), facing a potentially tough challenge in 2004, took in almost $110,000 in bundled donations from Frist backers in 2003.

Frist has focused primarily on big dollars. Just 6 percent of Volunteer PAC’s contributions came from donations of less than $200.

The corporate and special interest PAC community, familiar with Frist from his NRSC role, kicked in almost $730,000 to Volunteer PAC last year.

Frist, however, was not the top recipient of PAC cash, a distinction that went to Hastert’s Keep Our Majority PAC, which took in $863,000 in cash from political action committees. DeLay’s ARMPAC raked in $713,000 in PAC contributions.

In all, seven Congressional leadership PACs raised more than $1 million in 2003: Frist, DeLay, Hastert, Clinton, Kennedy and Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Despite his fall from leadership, Lott continues to be a major force in fundraising, particularly among recipients of his direct-mail pitches. Out of the more than $1.7 million he raised in 2003, Lott’s New Republican Majority Fund took in almost $1.2 million in donations of less than $200, most of which come from direct mail.

Senate Democrats have clearly been hampered by the re-election battles of their top leaders, including Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) and Minority Whip Harry Reid (Nev.), both of whom spent 2003 focusing on raising money for their own campaign committees.

Their leadership PACs, DASHPAC and Searchlight Leadership Fund, took in $437,000 and $224,000, respectively. Combined, they gave out $305,000 to Democratic candidates and committees and were left with a combined total of $312,000 in their leadership PAC accounts.

Frist and his top deputy, Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), raised more than $2.9 million combined in their leadership PACs, cut $371,000 in campaign checks and were sitting on a total of more than $2 million as of Dec. 31.

Reid began to pick up the pace in terms of raising money for his leadership PAC in the latter half of the year, after a strong re-election challenge never materialized.

Some Democrats have picked up the fund-raising slack in Daschle’s absence, including Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.), both of whom have been considered potential candidates for future leadership posts in the Senate.

Durbin, whom some consider a possible future chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, raised $415,000 for his Prairie PAC, dishing out almost $75,000 to fellow Democrats.

Dodd, who spent 23 years in Congress without a leadership committee until last fall, raised $294,000 and gave out $53,000 from his CHRIS PAC to Democrats.