DSCC Bullish Despite Money

Posted March 12, 2004 at 5:38pm

Riding a wave of momentum keyed off the newly open seat in Colorado, Senate Democrats are now faced with the stiff task of raising the millions of dollars required to fully fund their ever-broadening palette of top races.

With nine Senate seats now essentially tossups — seven of which have no incumbent running for re-election — and another six considered potentially competitive, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee must bounce back from a disappointing fundraising year in 2003 if it hopes to match Republicans in the hand-to-hand combat for Senate control.

DSCC Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) expressed confidence in his committee’s ability to meet the financial challenge in an interview Friday.

“We may not be able to run the Jon Corzine-type campaign, but I think we will be in a position to make sure our great candidates will have enough money,” he said, referring to the $63 million of his own money he pumped into his successful 2000 bid.

The raw numbers present a somewhat more daunting picture, however.

To fully contribute to the coordinated campaigns in the nine states with the most competitive Senate races, Democrats must spend more than $3 million, according to Federal Election Commission guidelines for the donations, known as coordinated party expenditures or 441a(d)s. If they are forced to dole out coordinated money to help Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Patty Murray (Wash.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.), who are all currently favored for re-election, the total disbursement rises to nearly $6 million.

A further broadening of the playing field to states like Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Missouri, where Democrats believe GOP incumbents may be endangered, hikes the total DSCC outlay to more than $7 million for coordinated expenditures alone.

That figure does not include any spending on independent expenditures — mainly in the form of television advertising — by the DSCC on behalf of its top candidates. Those disbursements could easily run into the tens of millions to run ads in the nine tossup seats.

And with a self-funding Democratic candidate likely headed for defeat Tuesday in the Illinois Senate primary and another wealthy individual bowing out of the Colorado Senate race last week, no Democrats with the resources to fund an entire race are on the 2004 playing field, meaning that much of the funding onus will fall to the DSCC.

Corzine on Friday declined to make a definitive statement about whether the DSCC would spend the allowable 441a(d) amount in each targeted state.

“I am not ready to cross that bridge,” he said. “We will be disciplined about how we spend money. We have to be.”

The DSCC will soon report having $2.5 million on hand at the end of February; the National Republican Senatorial Committee showed $9.7 million on hand at the end of January.

“With nearly $10 million in the bank it gives us more options to determine how we can impact races,” said NRSC Communications Director Dan Allen. “We know we are in a good position to have an impact on the races that are going to be competitive.”

One potential financial boost for the DSCC could come from the “shadow” Democratic 527 groups assembled to collect millions of dollars in soft money that the party committees are banned from raising.

One group formed specifically for that purpose — the Democratic Senate Majority Fund — has struggled to gain its financial footing, however.

Fundraising aside, Democrats have managed to outmanuever Republicans in candidate recruitment and clearing primaries for their preferred candidates so far this cycle.

The latest example came in Colorado, where following Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s (R) March 1 retirement announcement, Republicans were unable to lure either Gov. Bill Owens or 7th district Rep. Bob Beauprez into the race. The party now faces the likelihood of a primary between several second-tier candidates.

Democrats, meanwhile, convinced state Attorney General Ken Salazar to abandon his long-held gubernatorial ambitions to run for the Senate, a decision that led Rep. Mark Udall and wealthy philanthropist Rutt Bridges to back out of the primary.

Democrats also have their top recruits running essentially unopposed for the nominations in Alaska, South Carolina, Oklahoma and North Carolina, and have strong primary fields in Illinois, Louisiana and Florida.

“The most important element of winning elections is making sure you have good candidates,” said Corzine. “On that scale we are in pretty exceptional shape.”

The one notable recruiting failure for Democrats is in Georgia, where with just six weeks to go before the state’s filing deadline, no strong candidate has stepped forward to fill the shoes of retiring Democratic Sen. Zell Miller, and none appears to be in the offing.

Republicans have had a much more difficult time convincing their “A” list candidates to enter once-targeted Senate races.

Top recruits turned down their entreaties in Arkansas, Illinois, North Dakota, Nevada Washington and Wisconsin, and Republicans were unable to avoid potentially divisive primaries in South Carolina and Oklahoma.

Only in South Dakota, where former Rep. John Thune (R) decided to take on Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D), and in North Carolina and Louisiana, where Reps. Richard Burr (N.C.) and David Vitter (La.), respectively, are running for open seats, did NRSC officials get exactly what they wanted. The DSCC will almost certainly need to spend the total allowable amount in those three states.

In spite of the recruitment discrepancies between the parties, the Democrats’ financial struggles remain the major obstacle to their chase for the majority.

Following the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in the 107th Congress, which banned national party committees from raising and spending soft money, the DSCC has yet to develop a formula to bank significant funds on the hard-dollar side.

Through January 2004, the DSCC had essentially a zero balance, with $2.6 million on hand and $2.6 million in debt, a total that included a $1.9 million bank loan.

The committee paid off that loan in February, according to knowledgeable sources, but still carries roughly $900,000 in vendor debt.

Corzine maintained that as his colleagues and the donor community begin to believe that a Democratic Senate takeover is increasingly possible, the fundraising has picked up — and will continue to do so. Republicans currently hold a 51-48 edge in the Senate. Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) caucuses with the Democrats.

The Senate Democratic Caucus thinks “a positive outcome is within their grasp and they are going to be much more enthusiastic in their efforts to make it happen,” Corzine said.

As evidence, he pointed to a “phone-a-thon” at the DSCC on March 3, where 12 Senators raised $1 million in commitments in just two hours.

In addition, 10 Democratic Senators were scheduled to travel to Palm Beach, Fla., this past weekend to raise money for the DSCC, and Corzine will embark on a nine-state fundraising tour that will take him to Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Illinois and Georgia, among other states, during this week’s Senate recess.

Although NRSC officials would not discuss specifics of their own fundraising efforts, informed GOP sources indicated that the committee had an extremely strong February and would reap a large financial windfall from the President’s Dinner at the start of the summer.

Although Democrats admit that fundraising is perhaps their largest barrier to regaining the majority, Corzine summed up the thoughts of many in his party, noting that the recent widening of the playing field has significantly more upside than downside.

“This is a problem you love to have,” he said. “We have a whole series of places where we can challenge.”