PACs Aim To Close Gap

Top Democrats Open New Groups

Posted March 5, 2003 at 6:13pm

Top Democratic operatives have launched a pair of political action committees designed to raise both hard and soft money for House and Senate Democrats, sources said Wednesday.

Strategists see the new PACs as a critical tool in their effort not only to remain financially competitive with Republicans, but also to comply with the strictures of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

The New House PAC will be run by former 2002 Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Executive Director Howard Wolfson and DCCC Finance Director Jonathan Mantz.

The Democratic Senate Majority Political Action Committee will be headed by Marc Farinella, former chief of staff and campaign manager for the late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan (D). Monica Dixon, a top aide to then-Vice President Al Gore, will be the Senate PAC’s treasurer.

Both groups have a hard-money component, through which they can raise dollars in conjunction with lawmakers, and a soft-money arm, whose activities can in no way be associated or coordinated with any politician or party committee.

“One of the principal lessons of the last cycle for me is that Democrats have to do more in order to be financially competitive with Republicans,” said Wolfson, now a consultant at the Glover Park Group. “There needs to be more infrastructure on the Democratic side.”

Wolfson and Mantz met with House Democratic leaders Tuesday night to explain the hard-money end of the PAC, according to a source in the room.

“The Members understood why it would be important to support an organization that was going to help House Democrats,” said the source.

Already Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) have cut checks to the organization, Wolfson said.

A late April fundraising event in Washington featuring Pelosi is also scheduled that will raise dollars solely for the hard-money end of the PAC. Wolfson estimated the event will raise “low six figures.”

Wolfson said that no decisions have been made about whether the PAC will primarily focus on raising hard or soft dollars. Hard-money contributions to the groups are capped at $5,000 per year, while soft-money donations are unlimited and can be spent on a variety of activities, including issue advocacy advertising.

Wolfson would not speculate on the total dollar amount the group hopes to raise for the cycle. “Our goal is to raise as much money as we can to support Democrats running for the House,” he said.

The bulk of the Democratic Senate Majority PAC’s fundraising efforts will be geared toward soft money, Farinella said Wednesday.

“The idea is not to duplicate the things that party committee can do,” he said. Under BCRA, party committees are barred from raising and spending soft dollars.

“It is left to organizations such as [ours] to raise soft money,” Farinella said.

The Democratic Senate Majority PAC has been in existence since late last year, when it helped raise money for the runoff campaign of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Prior to the Dec. 7 runoff, now-Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) attended an informational session introducing the group on the Hill, according to Farinella.

The PAC raised $15,000 on its federal side for the race and made a $1,000 contribution to Landrieu, according to a year-end financial report filed with the Federal Election Commission.

The Internal Revenue Service has yet to post a year-end summary report for the soft-money arm of the PAC despite the fact that filings were due to the agency by Jan. 31.

The Senate PAC will kick off its hard-dollar fundraising in this cycle on April 9 at an event featuring Daschle and Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Farinella said that he and Dixon have not yet met with Daschle, Reid or Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) to discuss the hard-money aspect of the committee.

“We’re very much in the planning stages,” he said, adding: “I am quite sure that Democratic Senators know” about the PAC.

Although the two groups will function independently and have separate staffs, they enjoy a strong working relationship and may even share office space, according to sources familiar with both PACs.

They are jointly sponsoring an invitation-only briefing session in Washington on March 11 for donors and fundraisers about the do’s and don’ts regarding the new campaign finance system. The meeting will be run by Marc Elias of Perkins Coie.

“There is a lot of demand about McCain-Feingold and what it all means and how their existence changes,” Farinella said.

Democrats are not alone in their efforts to establish organizations designed to be a conduit for political dollars.

The National Committee for a Republican Senate was established in late October as a 501(c)6 organization, which allows it to accept unlimited donations and keep the identities of its contributors hidden.

The Leadership Forum, which was founded by Susan Hirschmann — a former top aide to Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — is a 527 group that appears to be a potential outlet for large donations for those interested in House elections.

The National Republican Congressional Committee transferred $1 million in soft money to the group at the end of December but was forced to ask for the money back after outcry from the media and campaign finance watchdogs.

One thing that is clear in the post-campaign finance reform world is that Democrats face an immense challenge in seeking to stay within financial shouting distance of their Republican counterparts.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee raised $58 million in hard money in the 2002 cycle; the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee banked $48 million in hard funds.

On the House side, the picture was more bleak for Democrats.

The National Republican Congressional Committee raised $110 million in hard money to the DCCC’s $48 million. In the first month of 2003, the NRCC raised $6.9 million in hard dollars; the DCCC raised $1.7 million.

“The DCCC is off to a phenomenal start,” said Wolfson. “It had the best [fundraising] January in its history and was still outraised by the NRCC three and a half to one. That’s a call to action.”