In the crowded field of potential 2012 Republican presidential contenders, no one spent more to help the GOP reclaim the House majority in the days before the midterm elections than Sarah Palin.
Palin funneled $244,000 to federal candidates and committees in the most recent reporting period — all but a few thousand dollars going to 44 House candidates and a handful of state parties in the 19 days before the elections.
The latest campaign finance reports that detail federal political action committee spending from Oct. 14 to Nov. 22 signal the unofficial beginning of the 2012 presidential campaign, offering the most complete look yet at the jockeying by Republican heavyweights who will need state-level alliances across the country if they hope to claim their party’s nomination to challenge President Barack Obama.
“This is a classic sign of early organization. It’s putting markers down,” said Gene Ulm, a partner in the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies. “Serious people who are thinking about running, this is what they do.”
The late-cycle spending from the former Alaska governor’s SarahPAC represents the most significant investment in Congressional candidates down the stretch, but her efforts over the past year were dwarfed overall by those of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. His Free and Strong America PAC gave $769,000 to federal candidates and committees in 2010, including $110,000 since Oct. 14. Palin, by contrast, gave just $471,000 for the year, according to her PAC’s federal filing.
Romney, who finished second in the 2008 GOP presidential primary, made such a strong showing four years ago thanks in part to his aggressive efforts to shore up early support on Capitol Hill. He nabbed endorsements from top GOP Members in 2007 and 2008, with nearly 50 by the time Republicans started voting. Few Members have yet indicated leanings this time around, but Romney’s generosity over the campaign cycle that helped Republicans win back the House this fall is sure to help him when he comes knocking for endorsements.
Romney dominated the other potential candidates in both the size and scope of his giving. He sent the $5,000 maximum annual donation to 25 Republican Senate candidates this year. And he gave at least $2,500 to a whopping 220 Republican House candidates.
Palin picked more winners than losers: 24 of the 44 candidates she sent money to will serve in the next Congress. Romney, whose strategy in 2008 included heavy spending, gave to just about everyone.
Romney sent $63,000 to support South Carolina Gov.-elect Nikki Haley, $5,000 to Kentucky Sen.-elect Rand Paul’s campaign and $7,500 to House candidate John Loughlin in Rhode Island, who lost his bid to take the seat held by the retiring Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D).
Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom had predictably nice things to say about Palin and others eyeing the White House.
“Sarah Palin has been a real asset to the Republican Party,” Fehrnstrom told Roll Call on Friday. “We’re fortunate to have leaders like Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and others who are committed to raising money to help elect conservative candidates that want to strengthen America.”
Indeed, Palin and Romney were far from alone.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (Ga.)PAC, American Solutions for Winning the Future, donated nearly $214,000 to federal candidates and committees after Oct. 14 and almost $225,000 for the year, a surprisingly strong showing for a man who hasn’t held elected office in more than a decade. And those numbers don’t take into account any additional activity from his separate 527 account.
A spokesman told Roll Call that Gingrich helped raise more than $7 million for candidates in multiple races over the last two-year cycle through “all channels,” including speeches, fundraisers and direct mail.
There are many ways to generate goodwill in the early primary and caucus states where each presidential hopeful will need to attract a substantial following in the coming months.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, like Romney, paid considerable attention over the past year to downballot candidates in state and county races.
Like the other top-tier GOP contenders, Pawlenty devoted significant resources to helping elect more Republicans to Congress, sending $105,000 to 55 House candidates since the beginning of the year and another $60,000 to 21 Senate candidates.
But he also has donated more than $118,000 since to a slate of lesser-known candidates in New Hampshire and Iowa — the sites, of course, of the nation’s first presidential primary and caucus, respectively.
Pawlenty sent a batch of checks — generally from $1,000 to $2,000 — to roughly 40 state-level Iowa candidates, including the state auditor, treasurer and governor, all of whom won. And he distributed dozens more checks with smaller $150 and $250 donations to a group of 70 New Hampshire state House candidates and even county sheriff hopefuls.
“People in New Hampshire remember,” said Ryan Williams, a spokesman for the New Hampshire GOP. “Republican activists here appreciate the generosity of some of our national figures. They will certainly remember who helped them get elected.”
Palin’s PAC paid little attention to early primary states, according to her most recent federal filing. Of the 44 Republican federal candidates she supported since Oct. 14, just two of them — Reps.-elect Frank Guinta (N.H.) and Sandy Adams (Fla.) — represent districts in early primary states Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida.
Instead, Palin focused her donations in states such as Arizona, Colorado, New York and Tennessee, where she gave $5,000 to three House candidates in each state. The former governor also supported candidates such as Rep.-elect Ben Quayle (Ariz.), the son of former Vice President Dan Quayle; Sean Bielat, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.); and Rep.-elect Tom Marino, who knocked off Blue Dog Rep. Christopher Carney (D-Pa.).
Williams noted that most of the local recipients in the Granite State ultimately prevailed in a landslide election that saw the GOP claim both chambers of the state House.
“Many will now have the opportunity to endorse in the presidential primary,” he continued. “It helps the potential 2012 candidates build relationships and make friends in New Hampshire. And New Hampshire is a state where relationships are very important.”
Romney also devoted significant resources to dozens of state legislative candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he gave to contenders in South Carolina and Georgia, as well.
Involvement in the 2010 midterms is just the first step in what will be a long process of courting and attempts to win favor among influential Members under the Dome.
Most of the candidates reported healthy sums in their campaign accounts as of Nov. 22.
Palin’s $1.3 million edged Romney’s $1.1 million. But former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) reported an impressive $1.4 million on hand. Pawlenty had almost $355,000; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, another 2008 candidate, had $195,000; Sen. John Thune (S.D.) had $173,000; and Gingrich had just $41,000.
Alex Knott contributed to this report.