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Daschle Is Frist’s Priority

Making Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) his number one target in the 2004 elections, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) steered more than $166,000 to the campaign of Republican challenger John Thune (S.D.) through bundled conduit contributions in the first quarter.

Bundled contributions steered through Frist’s Volunteer PAC accounted for almost 8 percent of the more than $2.2 million former Rep. Thune raised from January through March, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

The bundled contributions from supporters of his leadership political action committee are just the latest example of Frist’s increasing efforts to elect Thune, which will culminate in his May 22 campaign and fundraising swing throughout South Dakota on Thune’s behalf.

The financial support from Frist has been a key early building block for Thune’s campaign, which ended March 31 with $1.9 million in the bank, trailing Daschle’s cash-on-hand total by more than $3 million. “We have to close that gap, so we appreciate the support,” said Dick Wadhams, Thune’s campaign manager. “Obviously Frist’s help was critical for that.”

Since taking over as Majority Leader last year, Frist has used VOLPAC as his primary political vehicle for pushing GOP candidates, raising more money than any other Congressional leadership PAC, nearly $2.8 million in 15 months. He’s also given out $333,000 to Republican candidates and party committees.

In addition to attending fundraisers and campaigning for candidates, he’s also taken the extra step of buttonholing his own top financial backers and urging them to make donations to the top Republican Senate campaigns around the country.

Frist’s political operatives have rounded up more than $700,000 in bundled donations for 10 GOP candidates in the 2004 election cycle. Thune has received the most money from those conduit donations.

Thune has clearly emerged as a top priority for Frist, judging by how much money the Majority Leader has steered to South Dakota in such a short period. Thune did not announce his intention to challenge Daschle until Jan. 5 and didn’t open up his John Thune for Senate committee until Jan. 19.

The very same day Thune opened his campaign committee with the FEC, VOLPAC cut $10,000 worth of checks, the maximum, for his battle against Daschle.

Frist actually began collecting checks from VOLPAC supporters before Thune for Senate opened its doors. For example, Ted Welch, a former Republican National Committee finance chairman who is close to Frist, cut a $2,000 check to Thune’s campaign on Jan. 6 and sent it to Frist’s VOLPAC, records show. That check was then sent along to Thune’s campaign headquarters in Sioux Falls, S.D.

In all, Frist’s PAC collected $156,500 in conduit checks that were then deposited into Thune’s campaign, on top of the $10,000 that the committee was legally allowed to give to the former lawmaker.

Other Senate GOP leaders have also rallied behind Thune, including Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), whose leadership PACs have given to Thune. “But certainly Senator Frist has been the biggest supporter,” Wadhams said.

In the first quarter of the year, Frist passed out $186,500 in conduit contributions from his PAC to Senate campaigns, 84 percent of which went to Thune’s campaign.

Daschle’s campaign called Frist’s financial help an example of the strong-arming GOP leaders used to get Thune in the race. “Part of the deal was that they would raise millions of dollars from around the country for him,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Daschle’s spokesman.

Wadhams speculated that many Senators might feel a tinge of guilt about Thune’s 524-vote loss in 2002 to Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), but said Daschle’s national profile as the main impediment to President Bush’s agenda has been an equally compelling draw for Frist and others to help Thune this time around.

“I think a lot of Republican Senators think Thune should have been in their ranks in 2003,” he said. “[But] this is on everybody’s targeted list.”

As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2002, Frist campaigned often for Thune, including in South Dakota. It was the only big loss that Senate Republicans suffered on Election Night 2002, when they regained the majority.

Frist’s trip to South Dakota next month will likely mark the first time a Senate floor leader campaigned against the leader of the opposing party in more than 50 years. The last floor leader to lose re-election was Sen. Ernest McFarland (D-Ariz.), who lost in 1952 to Barry Goldwater (R).

The Thune-Daschle race is shaping up as easily the most expensive in South Dakota history. Daschle has already raised more than $10 million and, since January of last year, he has spent $5 million.

Wadhams said the Thune campaign budget continued to be about $6 million. Thune appears not to be overly worried about Daschle’s bulging war chest, arguing that a massive ad campaign that began in the summer of 2003 has not pulled Daschle that far ahead of Thune, with most polls putting the margin at about 7 points.

“We don’t have to raise and spend the same amount of money,” Wadhams said. “We think we’re on track.”

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