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DSCC Turns to Retiring Senators

Fresh from securing a $1 million contribution pledge from former Vice President Al Gore, Senate Democrats are eyeing a $5.5 million pot of leftover campaign funds held by retiring Senators and a handful of former Senators and unsuccessful candidates.

Sen. Jon Corzine (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said last week he is trying to cajole a few of his former or retiring colleagues into making a “worthwhile investment” in the DSCC.

“We recognize where those potential sources of money are,” Corzine said.

From the $1.1 million left in retiring Sen. John Breaux’s (D-La.) campaign account to the $842,000 remaining in the coffers of former Sen. Bob Kerrey’s (D-Neb.) campaign committee, Corzine has the potential to collect several six- or seven-figure checks that could help level the financial playing field for Democrats this year.

Gore helped that cause last week when he told Corzine that he would cut a $1 million check to the DSCC from the $6.6 million left in his legal compliance account from his 2000 presidential campaign. The Federal Election Commission allows leftover campaign funds to be given in large lump sums to national, state and local party committees, as well as to charity.

The excess campaign cash can also be used to make contributions to other federal campaigns, in increments up to $2,000, or all the money can be converted into a political action committee, in which case contribution limits rise to $5,000 per election, although the former Member cannot give large unlimited contributions to party committees in that case.

Most importantly, retiring and ex-Members cannot use the money for personal expenses, a prohibition that didn’t come about until the early 1990s. Knowing he can’t use his left-over cash for personal endeavors, Breaux joked that he already knew what he was doing with his $1.1 million: “I’m thinking of the Virgin Islands.”

In all seriousness, Breaux said he had not determined precisely what he would do with his campaign account, but added that Corzine would probably come away happy. Breaux said he wanted to make sure that he uses his leftover cash to best help Rep. Chris John (D-La.) win his Senate seat this fall, which would probably mean Breaux at some point will cut a large six-figure check to the Louisiana Democratic Party.

“I’m trying to see what I can do in the state for Chris John,” Breaux said. “I just want to find out how I can be most helpful.”

While a big donation to Louisiana Democrats wouldn’t necessarily boost the DSCC’s coffers, it would put a large chunk of change into one of the handful of open seats in the GOP-trending South that Democrats must defend this cycle and allow the committee to concentrate its resources elsewhere.

In the new campaign finance era that outlaws big, unlimited checks from individuals, corporations and unions, these leftover campaign accounts are the closest thing the party committees have to soft money. Senate Democrats, in this cycle, have a bigger pot of excess cash from which to draw on than the Republicans because they have more retiring Senators and a few former Senators and candidates who still have large cash balances from their campaigns.

On the GOP side, Sens. Don Nickles (Okla.), sitting on $664,000 as of March 31, and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.), with $835,000 cash on hand, are the only Senators with leftover cash. The other retiring Senator, Peter Fitzgerald (Ill.), was mostly a self-funding candidate whose campaign committee has virtually no cash in it.

A few wild cards in the race for excess campaign cash may be those Senators running for re-election with little to no challenge, such as Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and his $20.7 million war chest or Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Shelby has $11.3 million on hand and Grassley has $5.8 million.

Any donations from those Senators aren’t likely until much later in the cycle, when they are 100 percent certain no challenge has materialized.

In terms of giving excess cash to party committees, Connie Mack (R-Fla.) set the gold standard when he was retiring from the Senate in 2000, cutting a $1.1 million check to the NRSC in June of that year.

That’s the sort of support Corzine is hoping for from Democrats this cycle. Retiring Sens. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) have a combined $1.1 million in their Senate campaign accounts, although Graham still has a lot of debt remaining.

Corzine’s efforts have begun to pay some dividends, albeit not quite at the level he’s hoping for. At the end of March, Kerrey cut a $20,000 check to the DSCC. In a brief interview Thursday, Kerrey said he didn’t expect to give other large checks to the committee, which he chaired in the 1996 and 1998 cycles.

Also, after rejecting requests from many Democrats to cut a big check to the DSCC or to state party committees in the 2002 cycle, former Sen. Bob Torricelli (D-N.J.) offered a Christmas present of sorts, making his first large contribution to the DSCC at the end of last year.

On Dec. 25, 2003, Torricelli sent the committee, which he chaired in the 2000 cycle, a $15,000 check.

As of March 31, Torricelli was still sitting on more than $2.3 million, meaning two former DSCC chairmen held almost $3.2 million combined in leftover cash that could be steered to Senate races this fall.

Kerrey and Torricelli have made some donations to Senate candidates. Torricelli gave $7,000 to three campaigns, including $4,000 to Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), according to FEC reports. Kerrey has given better than $20,000 to more than a half-dozen campaigns.

The ex-DSCC chairmen have not been as generous to Senate campaigns as one former candidate, Ron Kirk, the ex-mayor of Dallas who lost to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) in 2002. Kirk was sitting on more than $73,000 as of March 31, but in the 15 months since losing to Cornyn, Kirk has given out $20,000 to Democratic Senate campaigns as well as $10,000 to the DSCC and $5,000 to the Democratic National Committee.

With the retirements of Nickles and Campbell, as well as a few contentious GOP primaries in open seats, Democrats feel the Senate is more in play than ever before, something they were able to convince Gore of in winning the $1 million pledge.

They hope to do the same with the likes of Breaux, Torricelli and Kirk.

“After substantial changes in the Senate map favoring Democrats, Al Gore knew the DSCC was a worthy investment,” said DSCC spokeswoman Cara Morris. “We are confident that these Senators and former candidates will feel the same way.”

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