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DSCC to Emphasize Donors

Taking a cue from successful Republican fundraising plans, Senate Democrats are dramatically expanding their contributor programs both inside and beyond the Beltway in an attempt to mine new dollars for the 2006 election cycle.

The new plans are designed to broaden the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s donor base and appear to be modeled after fundraising programs currently employed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

The retooling comes as Democrats seek to make up a six-seat Senate deficit and wrest control of the majority from the GOP. But it promises to be an uphill battle: Next year, Democrats must defend 18 incumbents, while Republicans need to protect only 15.

In a private meeting this week, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) asked his colleagues to help one of those incumbents, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). Several sources noted that while Byrd is a West Virginia icon and is favored to win re-election, he will need to focus his attention on caring for his wife, who is ill, in addition to performing his duties as the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Last year, Byrd raised only $4,500 and ended the year with less than $93,000 in his war chest, according to campaign reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Tom Gavin, a spokesman for Byrd, said that while the West Virginia Senator has not yet announced plans to run for another term, “he has every intention to do so. In each of his elections, Sen. Byrd has run an aggressive campaign. … He has never backed away from a fight when his state, the Constitution, or the Senate is at stake.”

The need to help out Byrd is just one reason why Democrats need to raise a substantial sum of money for the coming midterm election cycle.

Democrats are expected to pour money into Pennsylvania and Rhode Island to oust GOP Sens. Rick Santorum and Sen. Lincoln Chafee, respectively, and will need to defend vulnerable or potentially vulnerable incumbent Democrats in Florida, Michigan, Nebraska and an open seat in Minnesota.

Democrats have established five new national fundraising plans to help raise money and, in turn, offer a wide variety of perks to those who donate and help raise substantial sums.

For example, Democratic donors who raise $250,000 will continue to be invited to spend a summer weekend on Nantucket as well as attend monthly breakfasts with Senators. And all but one of the Democratic donor programs provides “interactive policy and political update conference calls with Democratic Senators,” according to DSCC documents.

There is a separate fundraising plan for lobbyists, offering such perks as meals with Democratic leaders and conference calls with Senators. Lobbyists, who participate in a regular political and policy meeting with senior Democratic staffers, were presented the new “funding packages” earlier this week by Jonathon Jones, the chief of staff to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).

“As we have discussed many times before, unless we can pick up Senate seats in ’06, things will only get more difficult for Democrats, whether we are serving in government or on K Street,” Jones wrote in an e-mail sent from his personal account. “It is, therefore, imperative that we build on the fundraising successes we enjoyed last cycle at the DSCC.”

Jones — a co-founder of the Monday Group, a regular meeting of Democratic staffers and lobbyists — said in an interview that the new fundraising laws force Democrats to “reach out to as broad a group of potential donors as possible and personal money is even more important than it has been in the past.”

“The individuals we are soliciting have a history of giving and this is an attempt to continue to maintain that history and encourage them to do more,” Jones said.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the DSCC, described the new lobbyist-donor program as “seed corn” intended to “get people involved early and let them see how much fun it is and how important it is.”

But a leading Congressional watchdog group criticized both political parties for linking contributions to valuable face time with lawmakers.

“One of the worst things about Washington is too much is for sale,” said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project. “Access is for sale. Votes are for sale and favors are for sale. It creates a system where corporate and wealthy interests get much of what they want and ordinary people get the shaft.”

Republicans offer similar services to its donors, such as private dinners and receptions as well as political and policy briefings with GOP Senators.

Several Democrats said they are pleased that the DSCC is taking a page from the Republican playbook, even if it seems unseemly to some.

“I don’t think it is nice, but we can’t be the only ones playing by the Marquis of Queensbury Rules,” said a long-serving Senator, who asked not to be named. “There has been a pattern established that suggests you would go after those who has it. Like a baker, you go where the dough is.”

Another Democratic Senator suggested that the only way for them to successfully convince donors to donate to them is prove they can govern.

“There is a need for us to be successful inside,” the Senator said.

Democratic Senators will also be expected to pitch in, but no formal dues program has been released, according to several Senators. A DSCC spokesman said the committee would not be making that internal fundraising goal public this cycle, but a senior Democrat said it is expected to be in the range of $20 million.

Democratic fundraising targets set up for the 2004 election cycle required the leaders and ranking Members to donate and raise a combined total of $350,000, while rank-and-file Senators were responsible for $150,000.

Once the fundraising goals are released, Schumer said he expected all of his colleagues to participate in the program.

“The House has set a great example for us,” Schumer said. “They raise more money from their Members than we do. This is a very profound and important year, 2006, so we are calling on everybody to reach deep.”

Already, several Democrats have made sizable donations to the DSCC including freshman Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) who cut a check for $150,000 on Jan. 25. “I want to be in the majority,” Obama said. “And to the extent I can be helpful, I will be helpful.”

As of its last FEC filing, the DSCC had about $476,000 cash on hand and no debt.

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