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Majority at Stake, DSCC Revamps Fundraising

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has reorganized and expanded its fundraising operation as Chairwoman Patty Murray moves to defend her party’s tenuous four-seat hold on the majority heading into 2012.

The DSCC outraised the National Republican Senatorial Committee by
$1.6 million in the second quarter, and the Washington state lawmaker generally receives high marks from K Street operatives and her Democratic colleagues for her performance helming the committee for the second time since 2001. Still, Murray’s challenge is daunting: Of the 23 Democratic-held seats on the ballot, four are in Republican-leaning states, four are in swing states and four are in states that saw significant GOP gains in 2010.

To meet this challenge, the DSCC has implemented three new fundraising programs targeting K Street and national donors, increased its phone, direct-mail and Internet fundraising activities, poured
$1 million into an opposition-research tracking system and hired 11 communications directors across the country. Although the electoral map at this point in the cycle puts the Republicans in a good position to flip the Senate in 2012, Murray is confident she can sustain the Democratic majority and said in an interview that the DSCC is meeting “all” of its goals.

“I think we’re doing really good,” Murray told Roll Call this week in her typically soft-spoken fashion. “What we’re finding is that people are really responsive. They know what’s at stake now.”

The new fundraising programs include the Chairman’s Council, targeting $10,000 donors. Previously, the DSCC tailored its appeals to contributors who fit in the $5,000 and $15,000 categories. Also new are programs called “Sustainer” — focused on the $100, young professional donor — and “Patron” — for the bundler who can raise $150,000 or more. “Patron” is the DSCC’s first program designed to appeal to supporters who raise money from others on the committee’s behalf.

Murray has also beefed up the DSCC’s existing Women’s Senate Network and appointed Sen. Kay Hagan (N.C.) as chairwoman of the national donor program. Other Democratic Members providing extra help include Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), who has transferred $250,000 in personal campaign funds to the committee and travels once a month to raise money for the DSCC. Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Chris Coons (Del.), Al Franken (Minn.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) are also boosting the DSCC.

There has been some grumbling downtown among Democratic operatives about the DSCC’s fundraising and its political operation, although the majority of reviews have been positive. One Democratic consultant had expected fundraising to be more brisk, given the number of incumbent Democrats running for re-election in 2012 and the power that comes with the Senate majority. As a rule, lobbyists will not donate to challengers of any party who run against a sitting Senator.

The consultant also criticized the DSCC for committing a few unforced errors, including sending out a well-meaning fundraising email appeal that warned that financial support for Sen. Ben Nelson’s re-election in Nebraska might be abandoned if money was tight.

But most Washington-based Democrats appear pleased with Murray, particularly given the competition for campaign dollars that occurs in a presidential cycle and the potentially difficult races on tap in Florida, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio and Virginia.

Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), up for re-election in 2012 and last cycle’s DSCC chairman, told Roll Call that Murray has been highly effective, complimenting her fundraising — particularly the improvement in the committee’s Internet cash intake. He also praised her candidate recruitment effort. Menendez, who lost seven seats in a tough political atmosphere during his chairmanship despite a map that initially looked favorable, said Murray’s biggest hurdle is “getting people to understand that [holding the majority] isn’t necessarily all that challenging.”

Menendez outlined Murray’s task: convincing people, “despite what they think is the challenge, that you can beat those challenges.”

He said Murray does have a challenge, but given his experience in 2010, she shouldn’t focus solely on the number of Democrats who will be defending their seats and how that puts the majority on the line.

“In fact, expanding the map is a real possibility, and convincing your donor universe and the press that, in fact, you can do that is important,” Menendez said.

The DSCC raised $11.8 million in the second quarter and closed the period with $9.1 million in the bank and about $2 million in debt. The NRSC raised $10.2 million from April 1 to June 30, to finish the quarter with $3.7 million in cash on hand and no debt. Murray is receiving prodigious fundraising assistance from Democratic Senators, which DSCC chairmen have come to expect from their Members.

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) — who led the DSCC during the 2006 cycle, when his party won six seats to reclaim the Senate from the GOP, and during the 2008 cycle, when Democrats won an additional eight seats — penned a June fundraising appeal for the committee. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Franken are slated to write similar appeals in the coming months, as are other Democratic Senators.

Campaign and leadership political action committee transfers have come from, among others, Coons, who has given $50,000; Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (Calif.), who has contributed $90,000; Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.), who has donated $136,000; Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (Mich.), who has given $100,000; Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), who has contributed $40,000; Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), who has donated $110,000; and Murray, who has transferred $115,000.

DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil, a veteran of Bennet’s tough 2010 campaign and the committee’s political director during the successful 2006 cycle, said Murray’s priority this year is infrastructure investment and pushing her incumbents to staff up early. Nelson, among the most vulnerable Democrats in 2012, relied heavily on DSCC support in 2006. The Nebraskan gave Murray high marks for her stewardship of the committee thus far.

“I think she’s doing fine. We’ve been working with her; I’m very comfortable with the job she’s doing, and I hear that from others as well,” Nelson told Roll Call.

Murray accepted a second tour at the DSCC after Reid failed to persuade anyone else to take the job in what one Democratic political operative said “can only be considered a difficult cycle.” Washington state’s senior Senator was hit with an immediate wave of retirements, setting up an even bumpier road ahead, as Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Herb Kohl (Wis.), Jim Webb (Va.) and Conrad chose not to run for re-election.

But Democrats have been buoyed by Murray’s recruiting and cited Rep. Shelley Berkley’s decision to seek the open Nevada Senate seat, Rep. Joe Donnelly’s candidacy in Indiana and former DNC Chairman Tim Kaine’s decision to run in Virginia, where he served as governor before joining President Barack Obama’s political team. Cecil said the goal is to improve Democrats’ electoral prospects by running top-tier candidates against at least four to six Republican incumbents.

Murray, who won re-election last year under difficult circumstances despite the Democratic lean of her state, has engendered much loyalty from her Democratic colleagues for accepting a job no one wanted. She is viewed as adept at early-voting strategy because of her experience with Washington’s vote-by-mail system. She’s seen as being in tune with female candidates and, more importantly, female voters, who play a key role in deciding elections.

A D.C.-based Democratic operative lauded Murray for setting the right expectations: “I think she has done a good job of making folks realize that while a flip is possible — or even likely — in 2012, it is not a given.”

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