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Judicial Fight Fuels the DSCC’s Windfall

While the winners and losers of the Senate compromise that averted the “nuclear” option earlier this week are still being debated, there is some concrete evidence already that Senate Democrats used the issue to score a big victory in the battle for campaign cash.

A year and a half removed from the 2006 elections, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is the only one of the party’s three campaign arms that has more available cash than its Republican counterpart.

As of April 30, the DSCC showed a balance of $7.4 million while the National Republican Senatorial Committee had $5 million in reserve.

Democratic strategists say the committee’s early financial success can be attributed to a mix of factors, including the polarized climate in the Senate over the issue of judicial nominations, the vast New York donor base of DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), and the more active involvement of Democratic Senators — who have the 2004 defeats that shrunk their membership to 44 still fresh in their minds.

As the debate over judges and implementation of the nuclear — or constitutional, as Republicans call it — option has raged on in the Senate, the DSCC, like other liberal organizations that fight conservatives over judicial appointments, has been successful in translating the issue into a direct-marketing campaign.

The committee has sent out a series of fundraising e-mails tied to the proposed rule change. Specifically, one pitch to donors that sought to link Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) with embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) paid for itself many times over to the tune of “tens of thousands,” said DSCC spokesman Phil Singer.

But he refused to say how much the appeal yielded because, he said, the committee doesn’t discuss specific fundraising details.

Other Democratic interests have also sought to use the fight over judges — and the overarching abuse of power argument against Republicans — to raise money. But given the rules of the chamber, the Senate remains Democrats’ best institutional hope for fighting conservatives in Congress and in the Bush White House.

“I think people see that Senate Democrats are the last line of defense against the extremism of Bill Frist and Tom DeLay and they recognize the need for us to have the resources to wage good campaigns going into 2006,” Singer said.

While the judicial debate has helped fuel the committee’s cash intake, Schumer has been uniquely positioned to stoke donors’ interest in fighting Republicans. Schumer, a member of both the Judiciary and Finance committees, has taken a leading role in the battle over judicial nominees and the Bush administration’s effort to reform Social Security.

More importantly, party strategists say, Schumer has been able to maximize his New York donor base to the benefit of the committee’s coffers early on.

In April alone, the committee raised $2.2 million in itemized (above $250) contributions from individuals — including a number of people who gave $25,000, close to the maximum individuals are allowed to give party committees in a year. At the end of the first quarter, fundraising reports show that the average individual contribution to the committee was almost $10,000. As of March 31, 1,071 individuals had given to the DSCC for a total of $9.54 million raised.

Earlier this month the DSCC raked in an estimated $1 million at a high-dollar donor event in New York. About 50 VIPs paid $25,000 each to attend what was billed as an economic forum.

Individual Senators have also stepped up their efforts to aid the DSCC — whether contributing PAC funds directly to the committee, raising money back home or in logging call time to donors.

At the beginning of the cycle, the DSCC was able to erase a debt of $3.6 million carried over from the 2004 cycle with the help of $1 million contributions from the Democratic National Campaign Committee and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who donated $1 million in leftover funds from his presidential primary campaign.

Democrats lost four seats last cycle, creating a new sense of urgency within the Caucus about what’s at stake in the 2006 races.

“Everybody recognizes the peril of losing three or four seats and what it could mean for the country if we lost those seats,” said one Democratic strategist. “We got slapped after the 2002 elections, but this time we got punched. When your back’s against the wall people have a way of rebounding and coming together.”

Democrats are defending 15 incumbents next year, compared to Republicans who have 14 Senators seeking re-election. So far there are four open seats, one Republican-held, two Democratic-held and one held by a Democratic-leaning Independent.

While Democrats hold the lead in available cash, Republicans are quick to tout the fact that they have slightly outraised the DSCC overall so far this cycle: $13.6 million compared to $12.8 million. In April, the NRSC actually narrowed the cash deficit by taking in more money and spending less than the DSCC.

Last month, the NRSC raised an estimated $3.2 million at a fundraiser headlined by President Bush at Frist’s Washington, D.C., home. In June the NRSC and the National Congressional Campaign Committee will share in the proceeds of the annual President’s dinner, an event that will net Senate Republicans an estimated $8 million.

Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has raised almost $1 million already for the dinner and five other Senators have raised more than $200,000 each.

“We’re on track with where our goals have us at this point,” said NRSC spokesman Brian Nick. The NRSC began the cycle $2.5 million in debt, an amount that almost equals its current cash deficit to the DSCC.

The two other Democratic campaign committees have not fared as well.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is currently at a 3-to-1 cash disadvantage over its GOP counterpart and the DNC ended April with $7.4 million on hand compared to the Republican National Committee’s $30.2 million.

Republicans have also used the judges issue in their fundraising pitches, although the committee may not reap the bounty of their direct mail pieces until next month. The DSCC has relied heavily on Internet-based solicitations, which produce a more immediate result.

“It’s a matter of reminding our donor base that 55 isn’t enough, and we need to build more,” Nick said, referring to the NRSC’s direct-mail pitches. “We have been and will continue to increase our online fundraising as well.”

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