Senate Democrats have given twice as much to their campaign committee as Senate Republicans have, providing the party with a $1 million edge in internal fundraising in an increasingly tight battle for control of the chamber.
In the first 15 months of the 2004 election cycle, Democrats poured more than $1.9 million from their campaign accounts and leadership political action committees into the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. By contrast, Republicans dumped $958,000 into the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the same timespan.
Democrats say the 2-to-1 edge in Senatorial giving stems in part from a widespread feeling that several Senate races have turned in the Democrats’ direction. Democratic leaders have also succeeded in their quest to round up internal contributions in order to offset the loss of soft-money donations — a party standby that was outlawed by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.
“People sense that this is not a fool’s errand,” said Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), DSCC chairman. “I think they feel that we’re at the cusp.”
Republicans dismissed the significance of the Democratic edge in Senatorial donations, noting that the NRSC has $16.5 million in cash on hand, more than double the $7.4 million cash on hand that the the DSCC reported as of April 30.
But quietly, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has taken note of the need for more contributions from his Conference.
In an effort to elicit more cash from his colleagues, Frist sent all 51 Senators in the GOP Conference a letter that urges urges them to kick in more of their own funds to the NRSC, a GOP strategist said.
GOP strategists contend that, with Frist’s request for cash and a looming Election Day, donations from Senators will begin pouring in to the committee’s coffers. Officials at the NRSC did not reply to requests for comment.
In the wake of BCRA, contributions from Senators have become especially important to the party committees this election cycle. Unlimited transfers from Members’ campaign committees are especially useful because these donations come closest to mimicking soft money in the new era of restricted fundraising.
While the six- and seven-figure donations from wealthy individuals, labor unions and corporations are now outlawed, the party committees can accept unlimited amounts of cash directly from Members’ campaign committees, which have pieced together their war chests in increments of up to $2,000 per individual and $5,000 per PAC. Separately, Senators can hand out $15,000 per year from their leadership PACs to the party committees, or $30,000 over the two-year cycle.
The most generous Senator in either party has been John Breaux (D-La.). Less than two weeks ago, Breaux cut a $100,000 check from his campaign committee to the DSCC. Breaux, who in December announced that he plans to retire at the end of this year, had already delivered $100,000 to the DSCC on New Year’s Eve.
When added to the $15,000 from his leadership PAC, Breaux has given a grand total of $215,000 to the DSCC this cycle. “John is just terrific,” Corzine said.
And Corzine hasn’t just targeted sitting Senators for donations. One of former Vice President Al Gore’s closest confidants recently delivered a $1 million check to Corzine — part of a cash dump that distributed more than $6 million left over in an old fund from Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. In addition to the $1 million the DSCC received from Gore, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was given $1 million and the Democratic National Committee took in $4 million.
“When you look at the kind of resources the Republicans have — they generally outspend us two-to-one — you have to try to make up for that any way you can,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee.
At the start of 2003, Corzine and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) doubled the amount of cash that ranking members and leadership Senators were expected to give to the DSCC this cycle, from $50,000 to $100,000.
Levin, for instance, has given two checks worth $50,000 each to the DSCC so far, satisfying his minimum dues of $100,000 as a ranking member. As of March 31, 11 Democrats had hit their minimum goal of $100,000 — and that total would be 13 if checks from Corzine’s mother and the husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) were included.
Not counting the most recent $100,000 check from Breaux — which won’t register in Federal Election Commission reports until later this month — members of the leadership and ranking members kicked in more than $1.4 million to the DSCC through March 31.
Rank-and-file Democrats, who accounted for the remaining $500,000 from Senators, are expected to donate at least $50,000 to the DSCC.
Republicans, whose fundraising program from within the GOP Conference is dubbed “Team Ball,” have just one Senator who has given $100,000 or more to the NRSC: Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Majority Whip who chaired the NRSC for four years in the late 1990s. McConnell has given $130,000 to the committee, $100,000 from his campaign account and $30,000 from his PAC, according to FEC reports and PoliticalMoneyLine.com, an online campaign-finance tracker.
Frist has given $95,000 to the NRSC, the second highest total among Republicans. The top GOP donor not in the leadership is Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.). Cochran, who is line to chair the Appropriations Committee if the GOP retains control, has given $80,000 to the NRSC so far this cycle.
Some Senators on both sides of the aisle have made up for their lack of donations to the campaign committees by hitting the fund-raising circuit. Among Democrats, Corzine set a fundraising goal of $250,000 on top of the $100,000 in donations for senior Senators.
So while Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has given just $15,000 so far to the DSCC from his political committees, he’s been one of the biggest fundraisers for the committee, according to a Democratic aide. Kennedy is credited with bringing in nearly $1.5 million in donations to the DSCC.
At least three dozen Democrats have contributed to the DSCC’s program, known as “Stars,” while 32 Republicans have made donations to the NRSC’s “Team Ball.”
Both sides have had to cope with reluctant donors — a category that used to be much more widespread a few years ago, when the chamber wasn’t nearly as active politically.
Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) — who was given the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee by Daschle when he left the GOP in 2001 — has not given the DSCC anything, despite a campaign account now worth more than $1.5 million. Jeffords has agreed to hit the campaign trail later this year on behalf of Democratic candidates.
Two of the Senate’s unsuccessful presidential candidates, Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.), also have yet to make any donations to the DSCC.
On the GOP side, a half dozen Senators who wield gavels gave no money from campaigns or PACs by March 31: Indian Affairs Chairman Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.), Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (Maine), Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Judd Gregg (N.H.), EPW Chairman Jim Inhofe (Okla.), Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John McCain (Ariz.), and Rules Chairman Trent Lott (Miss.).
Corzine declined to criticize any Democrats, saying almost everyone had pitched in in some way to boost the DSCC’s coffers.
But, he added, “It’s never enough.”