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Senate Freshmen Join PAC World

Less than a month after taking office, a handful of freshman Senators already have formed or are in the process of forming political action committees, stepping into a fundraising province once reserved for Congressional leaders or those angling for a top spot.

The most heralded Republican and Democratic freshmen in the class of 2004, Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), are each opening PACs to begin raising money they can in turn give to other candidates for office in the years ahead.

Thune, who became the first candidate to oust a Senate leader in 52 years, said this week that he is in the process of opening the Heartland Values PAC, although the paperwork has not been filed and the name may be tweaked by the time the PAC officially debuts.

“We’re in the process of organizing that right now,” Thune said, adding that his first steps will be a direct-mail piece and efforts targeting some of his longtime supporters in South Dakota. “We’re going to be in the mail here before too long.”

Obama has formed the Hope Fund, named for his favorite line from the keynote speech he delivered in Boston at the Democratic National Convention when he called for “hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty — the audacity of hope.”

The new PAC will keep Obama on the path he blazed late in the 2004 campaign season, after his race turned into a cakewalk and he began transferring excess cash from his campaign account into the coffers of party committees to benefit tight Senate races, including $150,000 in a single week in October.

For their leadership PACs, Thune and Obama will be restricted to raising money from individuals and other PACs in donations limited to $5,000 per year. In turn, Heartland Values PAC and the Hope Fund will be able to give $10,000 to Congressional candidates — $5,000 for the primary election, $5,000 for the general. They can give up to $15,000 per year to national party organizations, such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Their personal campaign committees are allowed to give donations to other candidates in increments of only $2,000. If they have leftover campaign cash — Thune had more than $1.9 million in his account in late November, Obama $1.2 million — that money can be transferred to national and state party committees in unlimited increments.

Fresh off the campaign trail themselves, new Senators said they understand how valuable those contributions from leadership committees are to tight campaigns — even those that aren’t yet opening PACs.

“I saw the benefit of it in my campaign,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who took in $421,000 from leadership PACs in his 2004 victory.

Coupled with the $129,000 he received in smaller increments from other Congressional campaign committees, money from PACs of Members and former Members represented the largest source of money in DeMint’s race against Inez Tenenbaum (D), according to PoliticalMoneyLine.

Thune received $360,000 from PACs and campaign committees associated with Members and former Members, the largest single source of cash in the $16 million he raised against then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), according to PoliticalMoneyLine.

DeMint, however, said he still has some outstanding debts that he has to cover from his 2004 campaign committee, making that his top financial priority before he begins to organize a PAC. “I’ll probably get my campaign account settled first,” he said.

Another Senator citing debt as a reason for not yet forming a PAC is Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who noted that he was a local officeholder in Florida and then a federal Cabinet officeholder and so at the time restricted from having a PAC. Pointing to some of his freshman colleagues who are opening PACs already, Martinez said, “They’re all former Congressmen, so they’re ahead of me in this.”

Indeed, Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) already have PACs from their days in the House, although both committees were somewhat dormant in the 2004 cycle as Burr and Isakson focused on their Senate races.

Burr’s Next Century Fund raised just $16,000 in 2004 and was in debt by $281 as of Nov. 22, records show. He expects to reactivate it soon, but under a new name. Likewise, Isakson’s 21st Century Majority Fund raised just $21,000 in the 2004 election season.

Aides said Isakson would keep the PAC open, and, even before he was sworn in to the Senate, at least one corporate PAC, Home Depot’s, decided to make a donation of $5,000 on Dec. 30.

But PACs aren’t just for national stars or former House Members. Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), having never served in the House, is in the process of opening his committee, which he plans to call the Rocky Mountain PAC.

Two former House Members, Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), have not begun the process of forming a PAC and aren’t certain whether they will. In his three House terms, Vitter said he never had a leadership PAC and instead “found it more useful to focus more on my campaign committee.”

However, with a six-year Senate term locked in as opposed to the two-year House terms, Vitter said he is reconsidering his past fundraising practices. “Certainly circumstances have changed, I’m open to it. I haven’t made a final decision,” he said.

And Coburn has not even thought about a PAC. “No, I haven’t even looked at it yet,” he said.

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