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Deep in Debt

Washington State Parties Swimming in Red Ink Spilled in 2004 Cycle

The Washington state Democratic and Republican parties together spent a record-shattering $6 million plus on last year’s protracted governor’s race, leaving both badly in debt.

Yet neither state nor national party leaders think the red ink will truly hurt their 2006 Congressional candidates in the Evergreen State.

Through July, Washington Republicans were in debt to the tune of about

$1.6 million while the Democrats were approximately $650,000 in the hole — despite national party efforts to help both sides pad their coffers.

Chris Vance, chairman of the Washington Republican Party, said “we are roughly $1 million in debt to the lawyers” for the recount and unsuccessful court challenge that left Democrat Christine Gregoire in place as governor. But he said the party segregates its money and that the legal fees will not detract from efforts to help Congressional candidates.

“The money we use to pay the lawyers will not come from any funds used for get out the vote [activities],” he said.

But Jim Keough, a Seattle-based Republican consultant, said money is inevitably being diverted away from campaigns.

“Some of the money that could go elsewhere is going into the [debt retirement] coffers,” Keough said.

Both parties have been working overtime to retire their debts.

Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman raised about $50,000 toward debt relief during a visit to the Seattle area last week.

Both the Democratic and Republican governors’ associations have cut six-figure checks to their respective state parties and big party donors, including unions, individuals and corporations, are being tapped to help put the parties back in the black.

Under Washington state campaign finance laws, parties can collect unlimited contributions for party operations and state candidate funds as long as none of the money is used in federal races.

Vance admits the debt concerns him.

“There will be more competition for donors in Washington state,” he acknowledged. “In effect, each $1 raised for retiring the legal debt is $1 not going to the candidate.”

Paul Berendt, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said his side is about $610,000 in arrears right now.

“We’re in a stronger position than they are in a lot of ways,” he said. “They have a big debt and they don’t have the governor.”

Still, Berendt, whose party was also hit with a $187,500 fine from the state’s Public Disclosure Commission in June, admits things could be better.

“It wouldn’t be accurate to say it has no effect at all. We have to chip away it or it could hurt us next year,” he said.

National party leaders do not believe the state parties’ problems will hurt their candidates, however.

“Our incumbents will have all the money they need,” said a confident Ed Patru, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was equally upbeat.

“We believe any Democratic candidate will have the funds they need come Election Day,” she said.

Furthermore, Democrats think they are in a better position in 2006 as they have more Congressional incumbents, who generally have an easier time raising money.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) is up for re-election, and six of the nine House Members are Democrats.

But Cantwell’s likely challenger, Mike McGavick, who is the chief executive officer of insurance giant Safeco, is personally wealthy and can likely count on alliances forged during his tenure as chief of staff to then-Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and the insurance industry for steady contributions.

Likewise, the Republicans’ most vulnerable Member, Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), has already raised more than $700,000 this cycle.

The biggest concern for federal candidates, according to state party officials and consultants, is donors who are tired of being asked to contribute to candidates and party committees.

“We have experienced some donor fatigue,” Berendt said.

Candidates probably will not be able to count on the party for as many services as it provided last year either, Keough conceded.

“Last year the state party was a very flush organization; it had plenty of money to run all the various programs that they run and to staff up as much as they did,” Keough said. “I guess the debt would cause them not to be able to staff up as much as in the past but given that there is only one big statewide race next year, they won’t need” as much extra staff, Keough added.

Campaigns will have to assume responsibilities that the state party may otherwise have provided, Keough said. For instance, the communications team will likely be smaller or the party will not have as much cutting-edge technology as it might have in more prosperous years. But “I think campaigns will be able to absorb it,” he said.

Ultimately, Vance thinks the party, rather than individual candidates, will suffer most.

The most an individual can give to a federal candidate is $4,000, he pointed out. The state parties are the entities that hit up major contributors for big checks.

“There are donors who are saying ‘gee Chris, I just wrote you a check,’” Vance said.

Keough agreed, saying that small, grass-roots donors who primarily fund GOTV efforts are still fired up and have not slackened their pace of giving.

They believe that Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi was robbed last year and want revenge.

“The Rossi election is motivating those folks even more,” Keough said.