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Life After BCRA Reforms Still Sweet for Democrats

During a triumphant I-told-you-so talk with reporters outside the convention hall Monday, Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) declared that his ballyhooed campaign finance reform package — which banned party-raised soft money — was a resounding success, helping make both parties stronger and the political process healthier.

“Nine months ago, the pundits predicted that our nominee would be stumbling into Boston this week penniless and outgunned by the Republican fundraising machine,” Meehan said over the whirring of helicopters as convention delegates flowed into Boston’s Fleet Center.

“The conventional wisdom was that the soft-money ban would have crippled the Democratic Party committees, leaving our candidate prone to relentless attacks from the Republican machine,” Meehan continued. “Today, it’s clear these naysayers were just wrong.”

According to the House Member from Lowell, who is said to be eyeing the Senate seat of John Kerry (D-Mass.), Democrats are in “better financial shape than ever” and have adapted to Congress’ overhaul of the nation’s campaign finance laws two years ago.

Indeed, in the first election cycle since the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, fundraising reports show that both parties are alive and well — a particularly sweet surprise for party finance specialists. Many BCRA critics had professed that the end of soft money would spell disaster for Democrats, who were particularly reliant on the unrestricted party funds during recent campaign cycles.

During the first 18 months of the 2000 cycle, Democrats raised $102.5 million in hard money, which needs to be raised in smaller increments, compared to $124.2 million in soft money.

By contrast, this cycle the Democrats have raked in $230 million in hard money alone — more than last cycle’s combined soft- and hard-money total of $226.7 million.

Republican Party committees have fared even better, raising $611.1 million in hard money during the first 18 months of this election cycle. That’s a $64.5 million dollar increase over the hard- and soft-money total they reported at this same point in the 2000 elections.

“Democrats are weaning themselves off the corrupt soft-money system,” Meehan said, crediting three presidential candidates for helping the party along.

Kerry’s campaign has galvanized new people to enter the political process for the first time, Meehan said, while the actions of President Bush’s administration has also energized grassroots supporters who may never have given significantly to the Democrats in previous elections.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, he added, helped boost the search for small donors by showing the vast potential for fundraising over the Internet. Kerry, drawing on those methods, has raised $10 million a month on the Web.

Micah Sifry — a campaign-finance specialist with the activist group Public Campaign who co-authored with Nancy Watzman the recent book “Is That a Politician In Your Pocket? Washington on $2 Million A Day” — said while he is grateful that Members like Meehan were able to push through a soft-money ban, “the problem is far from solved.”

“It’s definitely not fixed. We’ve taken one step in the right direction,” Sifry said. “The direct link between elected officials and the parties and the big check writers has been broken, but there are still many ways for motivated donors to exercise disproportionate influence.”

“Only one-quarter of one percent of the population makes a contribution — even after BCRA,” Sifry said. “This group is not representative of the average population. It’s older, disproportionately male, disproportionately white and disproportionately conservative. It tilts the entire political process in its direction.”

“The core problem is that to run for office, you have to still raise huge sums of money from a tiny pool of people,” said Sifry, who is in Boston this week to monitor the party scene and track the convention fundraising spectacle on his personal blog,

Underneath a photo of a Bud Light banner draped over the Fleet Center, Sifry noted in a Monday blog dispatch that “Anheuser-Bush, the maker of Budweiser, is the #71 top contributor of campaign cash of all companies, 1989-present, giving $7.8 million to federal candidates and parties, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.”

Sifry and his colleague Watzman aren’t the only watchdogs keeping an eye on money-related activities in Beantown.

Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, who for weeks has been railing against the “influence-money spectacles at the national conventions,” is also hitting the streets of Boston this week to monitor the elaborate set-up, which is paid for largely by host committee soft money, and the lavish and expensive parties that corporations, trade organizations and lobbying firms are hosting in honor of particular lawmakers. (Roll Call is one of many media entities that has also sponsored parties this week.)

Meehan and his allies, however, were quick to note that convention organizers have a difficult mission

“It costs money to put these on, and local cities have a serious task in trying to get the job done,” said campaign finance expert Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Meehan noted that the parties were able to secure an extra $25 million this year from the federal government to pay for post-9/11 security costs. He said he hopes conventions will receive more public financing in the future.

Meehan and Mann also played down the importance of so-called 527 groups, the controversial independent groups organized under Section 527 of the tax code. In this election cycle, Democrats have done especially well organizing 527s that are designed to register voters and boost turnout.

Republicans and watchdogs have charged that 527s, such as the prominent pro-Kerry group America Coming Together, which is run by former Kerry campaign manager Jim Jordan, and the Media Fund, which is run by former Clinton aide Harold Ickes, are vehicles created merely to circumvent the soft-money ban.

Meehan said he hopes “in the long run” that “people won’t see the need to have something separate.”

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