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GOP Mail Firm’s Net Rate Raises Concerns

Retired Army Lt. Col. Bill Russell’s campaign burn rate has raised concerns about the viability of his candidacy — and questions about the direct-mail firm he employs — according to local Republicans who could pick him as their nominee to run for the late Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) seat this week.

Although Russell raves about his campaign staff and direct-mail firm, Base Connect, former clients of the national direct-mail firm interviewed for this story said they are hesitant to use the firm again because they believe they didn’t get enough bang for their buck.

Russell was the 2008 GOP nominee against Murtha, and so far this cycle he has raised more than $2.9 million for his campaign — a sum that even most incumbents would marvel at. But at the end of last year, he reported having just $211,000 left in the bank because he spent an exorbitant amount to raise that eye-popping figure.

“It matters because if you’re looking for the ability of a candidate to win a seat, you’re looking at how much cash do they have. What they’ve raised is kind of irrelevant,” said Charlie Gerow, a GOP strategist based in Pennsylvania.

Local officials will pick either Russell or businessman Tim Burns on Thursday to be their nominee in the May 18 special election. Meanwhile, both Republicans are also running in the primary for a full term on the same day in the southwestern Pennsylvania swing district.

Given that candidates must run simultaneous campaigns for both races, every penny counts.

In the fourth quarter of 2009, Russell raised a whopping $896,000 but spent $809,000, about $680,000 of which was spent on direct-mail-related costs. Gerow allowed that Russell’s fundraising “ultimately might cause some angst” for Republicans if he’s the nominee and can’t raise enough money for the special election.

The pitch for Base Connect, formerly known as BMW Direct, is simple: A campaign might not net much cash during most of the campaign while donors are prospected, but the candidate will have ample funds to spend in the final stretch of the race once those donors are farmed.

As one GOP consultant put it, Base Connect employes a strategy of “no cost prospecting.”

“It’s not a high net process because of postage costs, because of printing costs,” the GOP consultant said. “It is not the most cost-efficient way to raise money, but it is a way to raise money.”

According to direct-mail fundraising totals supplied by Base Connect, Russell is utilizing his donor list and raised almost $193,000 from Feb. 18 to March 3. A company spokesman said only a minimal part of that will go to vendors and overhead costs at this point, although an exact figure was not available.

Russell said he’s been pleased so far with Base Connect’s work, and the GOP contender is even featured in a promotional video on the company’s Web site. The sprawling 12th district covers several television markets, and Russell said his direct mail also works as campaign advertising.

“Every piece of mail that goes out is an advertisement,” Russell said. “And that’s something that a lot of folks overlook.”

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