Daschle, Frist Wring Cash From S.D. Trip

Posted May 19, 2004 at 7:03pm

On the eve of a historic campaign trip pitting the Senate’s leaders directly against one another, both parties ramped up their fundraising efforts in what has become the chamber’s most symbolically important race.

With Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) set to touch down in South Dakota Saturday, the campaign of Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm both sent out fundraising pitches touting Frist’s efforts as a reason for donors to “dig deep” for Daschle. They even attached a copy of Frist’s own direct-mail pitch on behalf of Daschle’s opponent, former Rep. John Thune (R), to their letters for Daschle.

Demonstrating the GOP commitment to ousting Daschle, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, roughly 10 Senators and dozens of top corporate lobbyists hosted the first “Team Thune” event at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., this week. Thune was on hand for the event, which raised $150,000 dollars.

“This one is very important,” said Dirk Van Dongen, the chief lobbyist of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and the organizer of K Street efforts on Thune’s behalf. “More than a Senate seat is at stake.”

The Willard event and Frist’s trip to South Dakota are the latest examples of the escalating political and financial help Beltway Republicans are lending to Thune, whose election the Majority Leader has made his highest priority this cycle.

The efforts come as a new independent poll showing Daschle ahead of Thune by just 49 percent to 47 percent is set to be released in South Dakota today.

That survey directly contradicts a poll released by Daschle’s campaign earlier this week that showed the Senate Minority Leader with a 55 percent to 42 percent lead.

Privately, both sides expect a very close race with the total number of undecided and swayable voters at about 6 or 7 percent of the electorate, leaving Daschle and Thune’s camps fighting over roughly 30,000 voters who will be the target of $20 million or more in spending for this election.

Frist already rounded up $156,000 in bundled contributions from his top donors for Thune’s campaign. In addition, Frist sent out a direct-mail pitch last month that raised “well into the six figures” for Thune, according to three sources familiar with the letter.

But Frist’s efforts have fired up Daschle’s supporters as well. While Daschle has not openly criticized his GOP counterpart for working against him, his campaign’s direct-mail pitch directly parried Frist’s letter for Thune, in which the Tennessee Republican told his supporters, “If you can only make one more contribution to one of our Republican Senate candidates this election cycle, you should make that gift to John Thune!”

Cappy McGarr, one of the Daschle campaign’s top fundraisers, wrote that he had “never seen anything like” Frist’s letter, pointing to “the idea that the Senate Majority Leader has chosen as his number one target for defeat the very guy he is supposed to work with.”

“So, if you can make only one contribution and want to do so to a great leader, you should make that gift to Tom Daschle!!” McGarr wrote in a pitch sent out Friday by letter and e-mail.

With the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sending out almost the exact same letter via e-mail under the signature of Executive Director David Rudd, Daschle’s campaign said it was one of the most successful direct-mail pitches ever. It brought in $32,000 on the first night it went out, and more money has come in since, according to Dan Pfeiffer, Daschle’s spokesman.

“It gives us an opportunity,” Pfeiffer said of the liberal activist reaction to national GOP help to Thune. “When they see the entire rogue’s gallery of Republicans coming after him, that gives them the incentive to reach into their pockets.”

The growing clamor between the Daschle and Thune camps is likely to be further stoked when Frist stumps for Thune in the state Saturday. In addition to a Sioux Falls fundraiser for Thune, Frist will speak to two county Republican Lincoln Day events.

Later next week, when Frist is in Texas, he will attend a fundraiser for Thune hosted by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), part of a seven-state swing the Majority Leader is making on behalf of five Senate candidates over the Memorial Day recess. Last month Thune was one of a handful of challengers and open-seat contenders to be the beneficiaries of Frist’s biggest fundraising weekend of the year in Nashville, put on by his leadership political action committee, Volunteer PAC.

On Wednesday, Frist again defended his decision to work so hard for Daschle’s defeat, saying that as the “highest-ranking Republican in the Senate” he had an obligation to push for Thune’s victory. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2002, Frist personally recruited Thune into the race against Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), which he lost by 524 votes.

Even though it is extremely rare for a Senate leader to campaign against his counterpart, Frist said, “It would be a little disingenuous of me … to say I’m not going to campaign for [Thune] for reasons of appearance.”

Dick Wadhams, Thune’s campaign manager, said the recent confluence of fundraising and polling carries bad omens for Daschle heading into the fall. “The poll shows that more than $7 million and almost a year of television have done very little for Tom Daschle,” said Wadhams. He rejected the Democratic poll numbers as “a fairy tale.”

Daschle has been on the air almost continually since last July with ads touting his work for the state on energy and veterans issues among others. Thune, who entered the race officially on Jan. 5, has yet to run a single television commercial.

Neither side is advertising currently as the airwaves are dominated by the upcoming June 1 special election for the state’s lone House seat between 2002 nominee Stephanie Herseth (D) and state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R).

The Daschle-Thune race has also become a top priority for other Senators and former Senators, such as Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who will be in South Dakota on Tuesday and Wednesday on Daschle’s behalf. “I’ll go out there and correct all his mistakes,” Cleland said of Frist.

“I’m more committed to John Thune’s race than any other,” said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who attended the Willard event. Coleman, who hopes to become NRSC chairman next year, hosted one event for Thune in Minneapolis that brought in $60,000, and is planning to set up another.

In the lobbying community, attention has never waned from the race. A month ago, Van Dongen along with 20 other prominent D.C. lobbyists formed Team Thune, pledging to raise $25,000 each for the former Congressman before the November election.

A similar effort is under way to benefit North Carolina Rep. Richard Burr (R) in his open-seat race against 2002 Senate nominee Erskine Bowles (D). Van Dongen said that the goal of Team Thune is to turn the South Dakota Senate race into a referendum on Daschle’s approach as Minority Leader.

“In our judgment it involves what has been Daschle’s strategy as leader, which is to effectively stand in the door and block a lot of legislation that is of a high priority to the business community,” Van Dongen said.