Leadership PAC Money Follows New Leaders

Posted July 30, 2003 at 6:32pm

In another sign of money flowing toward political power, the new Senate Republican leaders registered dramatic increases in donations to their leadership PACs in the first half of 2003.

On the flip side, the sharpest declines in contributions to leadership political action committees came from two Senate Republicans whose long leadership tenures ended last year and the Democrats’ top leaders, who are bogged down in raising money for their own re-election campaigns.

With the overwhelming majority of leadership PAC filings already reported to the Federal Election Commission, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) appears to have raised more money for his Volunteer PAC than any Member of the House or Senate. Volunteer PAC won’t officially file its midyear report until today, but Frist’s allies told Roll Call late last month that the PAC had already brought in close to $1.2 million.

One major leadership PAC that might eclipse Frist’s is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s HillPAC, for which the New York Democrat will also file with the FEC today.

The $1.2 million Frist raised is more than seven times greater than what he raised in the first half of 2001, the corresponding period for the 2002 election cycle. At that point, however, Frist was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the post he used to vault to Majority Leader after the December demise of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ramped up his fundraising for the Bluegrass PAC, from $18,250 raised in the first half of 2001 to $132,942 so far in 2003. That allowed him to dole out $140,000 in contributions to candidates and GOP committees, the most of any Senate Republican. And Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.), whose clout has grown noticeably this year, nearly doubled his take for America’s Foundation, jumping from $340,666 to $667,779.

With soft money forbidden to the NRSC and other party committees, Santorum said raising money for candidates is more important than ever, putting a premium on leadership PAC donations to key races.

“With soft money gone, this becomes even more important,” he said.

The new leadership trio is trying to fill big-money shoes of the former GOP leadership duo, Lott and Sen. Don Nickles (Okla.), whose longtime rivalry caused plenty of friction but led to major fundraising efforts by both men. Lott and Nickles continue to be major forces in Senate GOP circles, but not at the same level as in years past.

Lott’s take for the first half of 2003 was $732,778, the second largest of any Senator so far and the third-highest total of any leadership PAC in Congress. But it was a sharp drop from the more than $1.1 million he raised in that span of 2001 and an even steeper decline from 2002, when he raised more than $1.8 million in the first six months.

He acknowledged that he hasn’t been pushing as hard to raise money for his New Republican Majority Fund. “I’m not under as much pressure,” he said.

In a sign of his continued prominence in the chamber, however, he raised $185,500 from other PACs, mostly corporate PACs, not far off the roughly $260,000 he used to raise every six months — but nowhere near as much as the more than $342,000 Frist took in by late June from the corporate PAC community.

Lott saw a massive drop in direct-mail donations, a costly technique but one that yielded $710,000 in contributions of less than $200 in the first half of 2001. In the first half of 2002, he raised more than $1.4 million in small-dollar donations, but so far in 2003 he’s received just $410,000 in small donations.

Lott, now the Rules and Administration chairman, said very bad timing ruined his first direct-mail pitch for the 2004 cycle: The piece went out during the December holidays, just after the 2002 elections and as his reputation was crushed by the fallout from his remarks about the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) Dixiecrat past.

Nickles, now Budget chairman, took in $252,525, far off the $433,145 he raised in the first half of 2001. The low total was attributed to a greater focus on raising money for his re-election committee should he choose to run next year, and the maternity leave of his top fundraiser for his leadership PAC.

The Senate’s top Democrats, Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) and Minority Whip Harry Reid (Nev.), both focused on their re-election committees as opposed to leadership PACs. Daschle had the single-greatest drop in leadership PAC fundraising of any Member of Congress from the first half of 2001 to 2003: He went from taking in more than $1.1 million, a total that was at least partially fueled by his spring 2001 ascension into the Majority Leader post, to $334,425.

Helping pick up the slack for Daschle in fundraising this cycle is Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose Committee for a Democratic Majority more than tripled its take from 2001 to 2003. Like Lott, however, Kennedy uses his PAC as a direct-mail vehicle, using his letters to gin up the liberal base and bring in small-dollar contributions. Kennedy gave just $28,000 to other candidates and Democratic committees. (Daschle, for instance, gave out $171,000 from his PAC.)

Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a three-term veteran, and Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), a seven-month newcomer, opened leadership PACs in the spring, posting impressive totals: Harkin raised $166,037, and Coleman brought in $137,592.

Harkin’s funds are paying for Iowa forums with Democratic presidential contenders. Coleman, whose name has popped up as a potential NRSC chairman, said his high-profile race in 2002 enabled him to raise money for his NorthStar PAC with little effort, one letter and a conference call.

“Raising money, reaching out, I’m certainly very comfortable doing those things that keep us in the majority,” Coleman said.

And Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), whose Impact America PAC had raised less than $100,000 for the entire 2000 and 2002 cycles combined, took in $167,800 for the first six months of 2003 and dished out $35,000 to candidates and GOP committees.

On the House side, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) led the way in leadership PAC fundraising, registering slight increases from midyear totals in 2001.

Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, saw contributions to his PAC jump more than 75 percent, up to $474,737 so far in his first year of holding an elected leadership position, more than any House GOP leader excluding Hastert and DeLay.

And Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), after a more than decade-long pursuit of a leadership post, raised more than any other House Democrat for his PAC this year, $432,232, a boost of more than 66 percent from two years prior.

But the strongest jump in fundraising among House Democrats belonged to Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the Manhattan Democrat whose sole hold on power is the ranking member’s post on the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution. Nadler’s Jerrys PAC brought in $308,360 in the first of half of 2003, a 134 percent spike from his corresponding 2001 total. That represented almost as much in six months as his PAC brought in for the entire two-year 2002 election cycle.