Wealthy Districts Pay Off

Posted July 29, 2003 at 6:20pm

Gearing up for a Senate bid, Florida Rep. Mark Foley (R) managed to find more than 100 donors willing to give him $2,000 — the maximum individual contribution allowed under the new campaign finance law — in the first six months of the year.

But a couple hundred miles north in the 3rd district — one of the poorest in Florida — Rep. Corrine Brown (D) hasn’t been able to scrape up even one.

The impact of increased individual contribution limits appears to have as much to do with geography as anything else, a Roll Call analysis of new data provided by the Federal Election Commission shows. The analysis provides the first systematic look at how the new hard-money limits that went into effect last November are impacting Members’ campaign coffers.

While a few prominent Members and those representing wealthy districts appear to be raking in thousands of extra dollars thanks to the doubled ceiling on individual contributions, House lawmakers representing poorer areas of the country derived essentially no benefit from the increased limits.

A separate $2,000 limit applies to both the primary and general elections — meaning generous donors may end up giving $4,000 before Election Day.

“This data clearly shows that the new limits are a boon for a handful [of lawmakers],” charged Adam Lioz, spokesman for US Public Interest Research Group, which is challenging the new hard-money limits in court. “It clearly leaves the rest of us in the cheap seats further from the action than ever before.”

For lawmakers like Foley, who can tap into a wealthy donor base, the hard-money limit increase has been a windfall of sorts.

The five-term lawmaker, whose district includes the tony Palm Beach area, raised $458,000 in $2,000 increments during the first six months of this election cycle. That’s a whopping 190 percent increase in the level of maximum individual donations he received two years earlier, when Foley raised $158,000 in $1,000 chunks from donors, and a substantial piece of the $3.1 million he had pulled in so far this cycle.

But dozens of other House Members, such as Brown, haven’t been quite so fortunate.

Of the 96 current House Members who did not list a single $2,000 contribution in their campaign filings for the first six months of the current election cycle, 13 are members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Many CBC members, in fact, opposed the hard-money limit increases, arguing that such increases would do little to help them or their constituents.

Two years ago, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) told Roll Call that “the perception that increasing hard money is one of the key fixes for campaign finance reform” for CBC members was “absolutely erroneous, because we very rarely get the maximum amount of contributions under the present $1,000 limitation.”

As of June 30, Thompson had received just two $2,000 donations.

At the other end of the spectrum, Members sitting on key committees, those holding key leadership positions, and some with a wealthy constituency back home reaped the rewards of the new higher limits.

For instance, over the past six months Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) has raised $852,000 from more than hundreds of donors giving $2,000. That’s a 32 percent increase over the level of maximum individual contributions he received during the first six months of 2001, when he accepted 644 $1,000 contributions.

Menendez, in fact, raised more campaign cash at the maximum allowable level of donation from individuals than did any other Member of Congress during the first six months of both the current and previous election cycles.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) both ranked among the top 10 recipients of $2,000 contributions. Pelosi raised $266,000 in chunks of $2,000 and Hastert raised $246,000 at the maximum level.

Rep. Tom Lantos (Calif.), who represents the western section of San Francisco and part of San Mateo County and is the top Democrat on the International Relations Committee, is currently in second place behind Menendez, pulling in $680,000 from $2,000 contributors.

But by and far, both empirical and anecdotal evidence indicates that the new hard-money limits aren’t necessarily a boon for the typical Member — who raised, on average, $32,000 in increments of $2,000.

Fundraising experts acknowledged the difficulty raising money at the new higher contribution level in the post-soft-money environment.

“Fundraising for the average Member of Congress is off with hard money — especially D.C. fundraising,” GOP fundraiser Matt Keelen said, explaining that with the elimination of soft money more and more hands are reaching into the same pot of hard dollars.

Overall, of the $48 million in individual contributions that lawmakers received through June 30 of this year, only $14 million — or 29 percent — was raised in $2,000 increments.

During the same period in 2001, $21.8 million of the $40 million raised — nearly 55 percent — was donated in $1,000 chunks.

“I think people have tried to go the $2,000 route and just have not been as successful as they had thought they were going to be,” explained Keelen, who advises a number of GOP lawmakers. “The president has been successful asking for $2,000 and a lot of people in town are already close to, or over, their [aggregate] limits,” Keelen remarked. “Once they hit the limit, that’s it. They’re done.”

But if some Members are having trouble asking for $2,000, others, like Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), seem to have a knack for it. Deutsch’s fundraising reports reveal that $216,000 of the $281,315 he raised from individual contributors — nearly 77 percent of all the money he’s received so far from individual supporters — flowed into his campaign coffers in chunks of $2,000.

Last cycle, 90 percent of his individual donations — $229,000 through June 30, 2001 — came at the maximum allowable level for an individual.

Overall, 36 House incumbents received the majority of their campaign contributions— more than 50 percent, that is — from individuals giving at the $2,000 level.