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Senate Democrats Rally to Save Seats

Nearly everyone in Washington is familiar with EMILY’s List. But what about Al’s list?

Through his large email list of political supporters, Sen. Al Franken has quietly but steadily become one of the most sought-after and prodigious fundraisers among Democratic Senators outside of leadership. The Minnesotan — along with a handful of his rank-and-file colleagues — has been active this cycle in raising money for the almost two dozen Democrats and Democratic-held seats that are being contested on the November ballot.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.) remain the four heavyweights among caucus fundraisers. But others are stepping up to help the Democrats protect their thin, four-seat majority, including Franken, Finance Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.), Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (Mass.) and Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Kay Hagan (N.C.) and, to a lesser degree, Mark Warner (Va.).

“Everybody is really helping us. Members understand what is at stake,” Murray told Roll Call last week. Washington’s senior Senator also serves as Conference secretary, the fourth-ranking leadership position.

Franken, who spent years as a well-known comedian and actor before turning to politics, tends to focus on local Minnesota issues and generally avoids talking to the national press. But the Senator, a hit with the liberal activist base of the Democratic Party, has been aggressively engaged nationally in party-building activities and on behalf of his Senate colleagues.

His email list is considered a lucrative source of campaign cash, and Franken has mined it this cycle on behalf of Elizabeth Warren, who is challenging GOP Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts; the Democratic parties of Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin; and 2012 incumbent Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.). Additionally, Franken has traveled and headlined events for the Democratic parties of California, Michigan, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia.

Franken has also traveled for Democratic incumbents up for re-election this year, including Brown, Whitehouse and Sens. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Jon Tester (Mont.). “Having been an entertainer for so many years, Sen. Franken knows how to hold an audience’s attention. Couple that with his political knowledge and he makes a great fundraising surrogate for Democrats,” said a Democratic strategist who monitors Senate races. 

Tester, locked in a tough re-election battle with Rep. Denny Rehberg (R), is considered to have one of the most difficult races of the 2012 cycle. If he loses, it won’t be for lack of assistance from his colleagues — much of which has emanated from his home-state colleague, Baucus.

The Finance chairman has raised more than $500,000 for Tester in an aggressive fundraising effort that is ongoing. A Baucus aide also confirms that Montana’s senior Senator has taken a special interest in helping Finance Committee Democrats who are up for re-election, including Cantwell, Stabenow and Sens. Benjamin Cardin (Md.), Tom Carper (Del.), Bob Menendez (N.J.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.).

Baucus’ assistance has involved dispatching his considerable network of former staffers to organize fundraising events and raise money for Democratic Finance Committee members. Baucus also continues to headline fundraisers in Washington and nationally on their behalf. “His colleagues on the committee are very important to him, and he plans to use all of his resources” to help, the Baucus aide said.

Democrats are defending 23 Senate seats in November — many of them competitive and in Republican-leaning states. Republicans are defending only 10 seats this cycle. The large number of Democratic seats on the ballot has somewhat diminished the Conference’s fundraising firepower because many Members are either running for re-election and focused on their own races, or are retiring and not actively raising money.

But unlike 2010, when Reid and Schumer were running for re-election, leadership is more available to help incumbents. Durbin is traveling extensively this cycle to raise money for candidates and for the DSCC. Schumer is doing the same.

The New Yorker is on track to raise $1.4 million by April from events he will have hosted this cycle. He also has donated $240,000 to candidates through his leadership political action committee, according to a source familiar with Schumer’s fundraising activities. Members outside leadership have stepped up, too. For example, Hagan is running a DSCC fundraising program focused on female candidates.

Bennet, who survived a tough election battle in 2010 after being appointed to the Senate in 2009, has headlined events for candidates and the DSCC, and he has contributed to candidates through his campaign and leadership PAC accounts. The Colorado Democrat is developing a reputation around town for being among those who are both effective fundraisers and eager to assist colleagues.

A Bennet aide said that a lot of people “stepped up” and helped the Senator during his 2010 campaign and that “it made an impression on him.” Perhaps facilitating Bennet’s aid to his colleagues is that his former chief of staff, Guy Cecil, is now executive director of the DSCC.

Kerry, meanwhile, has maintained a valuable email list of supporters that he compiled during his 2004 presidential bid. He has been putting it to work for Democratic Senators and challenger candidates since he lost the presidency. Kerry is a popular headliner on the fundraising circuit, which includes regular stops in Boston for events he hosts. Just last week, he traveled to California, Maine and New York to raise money for the DSCC.

Kerry has raised or contributed nearly $24 million to Democratic causes and candidates since 2004, aides say. Warner, meanwhile, has donated about $140,000 to his Democratic colleagues so far this cycle through his campaign account and leadership PAC, while also key-noting fundraisers for them. Warner has been particularly supportive of Senate candidate Tim Kaine, who succeeded Warner as Virginia governor.

Kaine, also a former Democratic National Committee chairman under President Barack Obama, was lieutenant governor during Warner’s gubernatorial tenure.