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Leadership PACs Long Shelf Life

A message to all those Republicans pounding the pavement for campaign donations: Former Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott just made your job harder.

Lott, who was sitting on a personal political action committee with more than $1.2 million and his New Republican Majority committee with $458,357 after retiring in December, has closed out his leadership PAC.

Instead of bolstering the GOP’s weak war chest, the former Minority Whip gave nearly half of his leadership PAC money, $192,593, to his alma mater, the University of Mississippi, according to Federal Election Commission records. The rest was used to pay outstanding bills and consulting fees before Lott closed the account in February.

Lott’s decision to shutter his leadership PAC is in contrast to many former lawmakers turned lobbyists who continue to use those accounts to donate strategically to candidates long after leaving office.

While former Members can no longer raise money through campaign re-election committees, the rules that govern leadership PACs allow former Members to continue to raise money and donate to a wide variety of causes.

“A leadership PAC can be a very good vehicle for staying active in the political world,” said Scott Thomas, former FEC chairman who is now at Dickstein Shapiro. “In the lobbying world, leadership money can be contributed to any candidate who might in some way be attuned to their interests.”

Lott is one Senator who will not be playing that money game.

He followed the lead of his lobbying partner, former Louisiana Democratic Sen. John Breaux, who terminated his leadership PAC in 2005 after leaving Congress. At the time, Breaux cleared out his Mainstream America PAC, giving $15,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, $5,000 to the Louisiana Democratic State Central Committee, and the rest to a slew of Democratic candidates.

Yet many former lawmakers try to curry favor with candidates and incumbents by doling out campaign funds. Others, like former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr, say they use the PACs as a way to highlight their own issue advocacy.

Barr, who opened his own consulting shop, Liberty Strategies, after leaving office in 2003, solicits most of his leadership PAC funds through direct mail. In the current election cycle, Barr has raised more than $1.2 million but gave just $34,000 to federal candidates through his leadership fund, according to CQ MoneyLine.

The rest, according to federal records, is being used largely to keep his direct-mailing operation going. “For better or worse, most of the money is being plowed back into maintaining the list,” said Barr of the fundraising efforts.

Barr said that while he has no intention of running for higher office, he maintains his PAC in order to give more visibility to issues that are important to him.

“It certainly doesn’t benefit me personally. It doesn’t pay me anything,” Barr said. “The issues that I deal with in civil liberties are so difficult to get candidates and incumbents to focus on I figure I have an opportunity to supplement [them].”

Former Republican Sens. George Allen (Va.), Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Bill Frist (Tenn.), all prolific fundraisers while in office, also maintain their leadership PACs.

While Santorum and Frist continue to solicit funds, Allen hasn’t, according to his long-time adviser Dan Allen (who is not related to the former Senator).

“His federal PAC he uses to be helpful to other like-minded leaders and especially other leaders that he served with in Virginia,” Allen said. “But his focus is more on state politics.”

Allen’s Good Government PAC contributed $15,000 to the RNC, $5,000 to then-presidential candidate Fred Thompson, and $5,000 to Virginia Republican Rob Wittman in 2007, who won a special election to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Jo Ann Davis (R).

The longer one is out of office, though, the less money is often collected.

For example, Frist’s Volunteer PAC raised more than $8 million in his last two years in office, contributing $256,500 to federal candidates. So far in the 2007-’08 cycle, Frist’s leadership PAC has raised $721,837 and contributed $13,000 to federal candidates, according to CQ MoneyLine.

Other lawmakers turned lobbyists, such as former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) and Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.), have limited the pool of solicitations after leaving office.

Livingston, whose lobby shop, the Livingston Group, doesn’t have its own corporate PAC, only solicits five of his longtime advisers and his wife to donate to his leadership PAC, Building Our Bases. Similarly in the last couple of election cycles, D’Amato’s Renew America PAC has relied on family and few others to fill its coffers.

While many former Members turned lobbyists maintain their leadership PACs in order to stay active in the money game, former Sen. Don Nickles (Okla.) wanted to keep his Republican Majority Fund in the hands of an active member.

Nickles took over the pack from former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (Tenn.), and after contributing most of its funds to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss took over the PAC.

“I thought the leadership PAC should stay with current Senators,” said Nickles, who opted to start a corporate PAC for his lobby shop instead.

“It is a very vibrant PAC and I probably could have kept it, but I thought it was more appropriate for Saxby or a current Senator to do it,” Nickles said.

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