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Bush ’04 Squeezes GOP 527s

In a major shift in fundraising strategy, President Bush’s finance team has begun asking wealthy Republicans to cut checks as large as $1 million to GOP state parties in key election battlegrounds rather than steering their funds to independent groups created in recent months to support Republican candidates this fall.

Officials at the Bush-Cheney campaign hope the new fundraising plan will draw in millions of dollars for dozens of “state victory committees,” which in turn will spend the money on television advertisements, get-out-the-vote and party-building efforts for Bush and other Republicans before the November elections.

The decision, made in the past few weeks, is the first major effort by Bush campaign officials to combat well-organized Democratic-leaning groups working to raise and spend as much as $150 million on behalf of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and other Democrats through 527 political organizations established after Congress banned soft money donations to the national parties.

“Because we are going to outspent by the Democratic 527s, we need to do everything we can to help the state party committees,” said Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager for Bush-Cheney. “State party committees are doing some good work in terms of voter registration and get out the vote,” he added.

Much of the state-level fundraising operation comes on top of the $50 million that the Republican National Committee hopes to raise for its own effort on behalf of Bush and GOP candidates nationwide.

Some of the money being raised by the RNC’s campaign also will be directed to the states through joint state committees set up by the RNC.

The new directive from the Bush campaign is likely to make it far more difficult for Republican officials to raise millions of dollars for their own group of 527 committees.

Republican fundraisers interviewed for this story say that Bush campaign officials have not mentioned the Republican 527 organizations. But by steering wealthy Republicans and corporations to the RNC and state committees, Republicans who run 527 groups are far less likely to get the attention of potential contributors.

“If the word is out from the Bush high command that donors should focus on the state victory committees, then it makes it harder to raise money for a national campaign,” said Cesar Conda, a former aide to Vice President Cheney who launched a 501(c)(4) organization earlier this month from his all-Republican lobbying shop, the Navigators.

Faced with a shortage of Republican donors, Conda said his group, Americans for Jobs and Growth, still hopes to raise as much as $6 million to run a “very good media campaign” in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Other Republican 527 groups are expected to find it difficult to compete with the Bush campaign’s new fundraising call.

That’s quite a change from a month ago when many Republicans were ramping up massive fundraising efforts to counter the Democratic shadow campaigns that were already humming along. But Republicans ran into trouble when their most reliable source of campaign money — corporations — balked at making large contributions.

Meanwhile, the leading GOP 527 committee stumbled out of the gate. In the past month, two top officials at one leading GOP group, Progress for America, have resigned.

Many Republican fundraisers believe the state party committees represent a far more effective way for the Republican Party to counter Democratic 527 organizations and promote GOP candidates this fall.

For one, state parties are free from many of the restrictions that face 527 political groups, including the ban on running television and radio advertisements in the weeks before the November elections.

As offshoots of the national GOP, state Republican parties also are more accountable to Republican officials. Most importantly, the state parties have a track record of registering new Republicans and making sure they show up on Election Day.

“The value is that the states can do a lot of the get out the vote,” said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), a top Bush fundraiser.

It is unclear exactly how much Republicans hope to raise for state party committees through the RNC’s program and direct contributions to the states.

Individuals can give a total of $57,500 to state parties through the RNC’s so-called joint state committees. But individuals and corporations in some cases can give state Republican parties far more by writing checks directly to the state committees because each state sets its own limits.

Donations to state Republican and Democratic parties are considered “non-federal” money by the campaign-finance reform legislation, so GOP contributors in some cases could write checks for $1 million or more.

In the last election cycle, Virginia’s Republican Party accepted unlimited contributions from GOP donors and corporations alike.

On the other end of the spectrum, Massachusetts law limited individuals to $5,000 donations to state parties each year. The state banned contributions from corporations.

Some states have quirky rules. In 2002, state parties in New Jersey could accept as much as $25,000 from individuals and most corporations. But the law barred donations by banks, phone companies and casinos.

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