Matsui Emphasizes Member Giving

Posted January 14, 2003 at 5:43pm

Faced with an uphill battle to regain control of the House, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) is planning to significantly restructure the approach the committee takes to raising funds from its members.

Matsui is dedicating the current two-week House recess to consultations with finance experts and other strategists in hopes of developing a network that will result in increased hard-dollar giving from Caucus members, according to a source familiar with the process.

The DCCC has sought to put increased emphasis on Member giving before — with mixed success — but observers note that assembling a committed and effective fundraising group will take on even greater importance this cycle because of new campaign finance restrictions.

The new guidelines, passed in the 107th Congress, outlaw the raising and spending of soft money by the House and Senate campaign committees.

Democrats have grown increasingly dependent on these unregulated donations in recent cycles, which have been used to fund nationwide issue-advocacy campaigns in key districts.

“Members are more important this cycle because they are the principle source of hard money,” said Howard Wolfson, who was the DCCC’s executive director in the 2002 cycle and is helping with Matsui’s transition.

In the 2002 cycle, the DCCC brought in $14 million from Members, the largest total in the committee’s history.

Matsui was among the most aggressive Democrats in trying to raise funds from fellow Members last cycle, said former DCCC Communications Director Jenny Backus.

“The high level of respect and regard Matsui has engendered in the Caucus will be helpful in his efforts to put a focus on Member giving,” Backus added.

Matsui has already addressed the Caucus about the need to step up hard-dollar contributions to match their Republican counterparts, an issue that became something of a sore spot in the last election.

The Californian spoke to the Caucus on Jan. 6, telling Democrats, “This is a different world and we need to look to Members for a significant part of the DCCC fundraising,” according to a source in the room.

Key to the DCCC’s efforts are Members such as Rep. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), who served as the chairman of the DCCC board of directors last cycle, and Rep. John Dingell (Mich.), the dean of House Democrats and head of the Chairman’s Council, a fundraising group comprised of the ranking member from each House committee.

Rangel appears to be fully on board, having developed a relationship with Matsui during their tenures on the Ways and Means Committee.

“[Matsui] was in constant touch with me while he was making up his mind” about taking the DCCC post, said Rangel. “There are a half-dozen events I have volunteered to chair, but beyond that there have been no specifics.”

In the 2002 elections, Rangel contributed nearly $500,000 from his campaign account to the DCCC, according to FEC records.

Dingell may be a tougher nut for Matsui to crack, as his relationship with Pelosi — and the DCCC — went through a rocky stretch last year.

Pelosi donated $10,000 from her leadership PAC to then-Rep. Lynn Rivers (Mich.), who was facing off against Dingell in a redistricting-forced primary contest.

Dingell publicly voiced his discontent with the decision and threatened to scale back his fundraising for the DCCC.

He won the primary with 51 percent (Rivers received 36 percent) and wound up donating $15,000 to the committee for the cycle.

Matsui said he has spoken with Dingell “five or six times” over the past two weeks about his potential involvement with the committee, but nothing formal has been worked out.

Other Members considered essential to the Member giving program include: Reps. Nita Lowey (N.Y.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Henry Waxman (Calif.), John Murtha (Pa.), Patrick Kennedy (R.I.), Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) and Ellen Tauscher (Calif.).

Both Lowey and Kennedy have chaired the DCCC in past cycles.

Although Matsui has yet to propose specific changes to further involve Members in the DCCC, he will clearly seek to build on the dues system that Democrats have traditionally used.

“We really haven’t had a structure for Member involvement in the past except for the dues,” said a Democratic source familiar with the reorganization plans.

The dues system, which requires Members to pony up from their campaign accounts on a sliding scale based on seniority and committee assignments, delivers only a pittance of the hard dollars the DCCC needs to fully fund its operations.

Republicans already have an effective system in place to generate contributions from their Conference and have shown a willingness to reward those who give lavishly and punish those who are stingy in their donations.

Created in the 2000 cycle, the GOP’s “Battleground” program raised $20 million in hard money from GOP Members for the National Republican Congressional Committee in that election and $24 million in the 2002 cycle.

The program was chaired by new NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) in 2000; Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) headed up the effort in 2002.

Democrats attempted to counter with their Together Everyone Achieving the Majority Builders program, launched in May 2002 as a fundraising and mentoring tool for endangered incumbents and open-seat candidates.

The program was not an exact replica of Battleground, however, as the hard dollars raised went directly to candidates rather than the DCCC.

By the fall, senior staff were griping that safe incumbents with huge war chests — such as Reps. Peter Deutsch (Fla.) and Lloyd Doggett (Texas) — were unwilling to write large checks to the DCCC to fund the final days of the hard-fought campaign.

One Republican leadership aide expressed skepticism that Matsui’s efforts will invigorate giving in his Caucus.

“The biggest difference between the NRCC and the DCCC is that the Republican Conference is united and disciplined and Democrats are divided and constantly feuding with themselves,” the aide said.

Even Democrats admit that Matsui faces several hurdles as he attempts to overhaul the way the committee seeks funds from its Members.

Perhaps the largest obstacle for the new chairman is the perception that taking back the House is not within reach in 2004.

“The toughest challenge is going to be constructing an argument that you can win the House,” said a former DCCC staffer. “It was harder to get [Members] interested in the 2002 cycle than it was in 2000.”

The overall political environment will further complicate Matsui’s task — and make donations from Members even more crucial — as contributors are more focused on the presidential race and retaking the Senate than they are on the House.

“On the totem pole of priorities for Democratic donors, the House is in the mud,” said one Democratic strategist familiar with the DCCC.