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Reid Becomes Fundraiser in Chief

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has taken up the role of fundraising workhorse for his party, leaning on donors more than ever on behalf of his own political action committee, incumbents and party committees.

On Sunday, Reid was in New York raising funds for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and on Wednesday he’ll be at Charlie Palmer Steak for an 8:30 a.m. breakfast to raise cash for his Searchlight Leadership Fund.

Indeed, sandwiched between his increased duties on the Senate floor and meetings he has to run as the Caucus’ leader, Reid will likely squeeze in three hours of time every week to make fundraising calls from the DSCC headquarters.

While Reid has always been one of the Democrats’ hardest-working fundraisers, his new post will require him to be a more active presence, filling the shoes of ousted Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who during his decade-long tenure was a tireless fundraiser.

Supporters say that while Reid is not a natural on the rubber-chicken circuit — sometimes he doesn’t eat, and often he doesn’t stick around too long at events — they add that he is willing to devote more of his time and energy to raising money to keep pace with Republicans.

“With his new role as leader, he’s going to have to be picking up the pace of fundraising for the Democratic Caucus,” said Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman.

With Reid’s re-election campaign recently concluded, he will be able to take a break from raising money for his campaign committee. Instead, aides said, his role will focus entirely on his leadership political action committee, the Searchlight Leadership Fund, and on raising cash for the DSCC and directly into the coffers of candidates up in the 2006 cycle.

That process gets under way Wednesday on Capitol Hill at the Charlie Palmer breakfast, an event being sponsored by Jonathon Lehman, a former aide to Daschle who is now a lobbyist for the firm Fleischman and Walsh. Individual attendees must pony up at least $500 for the Searchlight Leadership Fund, and PACs must pay at least $1,000, according to the event’s invitation.

Another Searchlight event in Washington is scheduled for March 14, this one focusing on the financial services industry, according to Reid supporters. And a D.C. event with the technology industry backers is also in the works.

The Searchlight Leadership Fund — named for the hometown in Nevada that Reid constantly invokes — has been Reid’s primary political vehicle since the 1990s, doling out contributions to candidates and committees. With his re-election almost six years away, Reid expects to be far more aggressive in raising money for the leadership PAC than he was in the 2004 cycle.

During that cycle, he raised $574,000 for the PAC and donated more than $280,000 from Searchlight to federal candidates and party committees, according to campaign reports. Those numbers are roughly equivalent to the 2002 election cycle figures for Searchlight, when he gave out almost $300,000 to federal candidates and committees.

But both pale in comparison to the amount of cash Daschle moved out of his leadership committee, DASHPAC. Even as the Caucus’ most endangered incumbent, Daschle still donated $560,000 to candidates and committees during the 2004 cycle while raising $1.2 million over the two-year cycle.

In the 2002 cycle, Daschle’s PAC donated $644,000 and raised more than $2.3 million.

Reid’s backers said they recognize that he will have to carry more of that financial load. “It’s a different role now,” said one Democratic lobbyist.

Reid is also soon expected to send out a direct-mail pitch to small-dollar donors — something his PAC has generally avoided in the past. Out of the $574,000 he raised in 2003-2004, only $100 came from small-dollar donors.

And last week Reid penned an e-mail solicitation for the DSCC that was the last in a series of counter-punches that he and Senate Democrats threw after the Republican National Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out more than 1 million mailers attacking Reid’s Senate record.

Invoking what he called President Bush’s “hollow promises of bipartisanship,” Reid told prospective DSCC donors: “In case you didn’t know it, I’m a former boxer, and I am prepared to fight back — hard — against the dishonest attacks and stand up for our core Democratic values.”

One senior Democratic source said that big donors should expect similarly straightforward pitches from Reid: “Reid has always been a savvy and effective fundraiser because he’s both unfailingly polite and ruthlessly to the point. And better than just about anyone, he knows how to close a deal.”

Reid has always had a large fundraising base in Nevada, particularly among casino and mining industries, whose interests he has often protected. Among PACs, labor was his biggest donor in his 2004 re-election, with $373,000, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.

His national finance director, both for Friends of Harry Reid and for Searchlight, is Sheila Dwyer, an experienced financial hand. She has worked in the past for former Sen. Bob Kerrey (Neb.) when he chaired the DSCC and for former Sens. Chuck Robb (Va.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.). Dwyer has been with Reid for four years now.

Reid didn’t wait long to start making donations to incumbents who are up for re-election in 2006. In the weeks that followed the November elections, Searchlight Leadership Fund cut a $5,000 check to the campaign of Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.), as well as $10,000 each to Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

Even more importantly, Reid has begun to bring out incumbents in the toughest races to Las Vegas, where they can raise cash directly from his own donors.

Last month, for instance, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) became the first in what is likely to turn into a once-a-month trek to Las Vegas for endangered Democratic incumbents. Others already on the schedule for the months ahead include Sens. Nelson, Conrad, Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

In the meantime, Reid has attended events in Washington designed to drum up extra cash for several of the same candidates — Ben Nelson on Dec. 7, Stabenow on Dec. 16 and Cantwell on Jan. 26.

Reid, as one strategist put it, “wants to take care of people.”

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