Frist Spreads His Money Widely

Posted November 1, 2004 at 6:40pm

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has actually raised more money than he knows what to do with this election cycle — so he’s begun looking toward the 2006 cycle and, indirectly, possibly helping himself for a 2008 campaign.

In the first two weeks of October, at a time when most Congressional leaders were busy steering campaign donations to needy House and Senate candidates, Frist’s leadership political action committee dropped $120,000 into a dozen Senate races. Those gifts were for incumbents up for re-election in 2006.

That’s right, 2006.

Frist’s Volunteer PAC maxed out to 12 of the 14 GOP incumbents up for re-election two years from now, dishing out $10,000 to each, according to new reports.

During the 2004 campaign cycle, Frist has cut almost $900,000 worth of checks to House and Senate candidates, gubernatorial candidates, local campaigns in Tennessee and national and state party committees by early October — so much cash that he actually seems to have run out of races that can impact the current campaign.

So Frist instead got an early start on the 2006 cycle, giving even to those fellow Senators who aren’t sure if they’re going to run again, including the man Frist replaced as leader, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Lott hasn’t decided on running for another term in 2006, yet even he received $10,000 from VolPAC on Oct. 4.

With so much cash still on hand, Frist’s aggressive fundraising efforts for VolPAC will give him a financial platform to begin a serious look at running for president in 2008 — something he denies, but which is clearly an option.

After the deluge of cash going toward the 2004 and 2006 campaigns, Frist still has a huge war chest for a leadership PAC — about $1.25 million as of Oct. 13, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Even if Frist doesn’t raise another dollar for VolPAC, he’s sitting on enough cash to give the maximum of $10,000 to each of the remaining Senate Republican campaigns and to the top 40 House races of 2006.

But Frist does plan on continuing to raise cash for VolPAC, which has proved to be the largest and among the most efficient leadership PACs in Congress ever since the Tennessean took over as leader two years ago.

Frist’s top political operative said that the focus of the PAC has always been, and will continue to be, to elect Republicans to Congress and not to promote any national ambitions Frist might have.

“It’s our main goal, to maintain or expand the Republican majority around the country,” said Linus Catignani, the fundraiser for Volunteer PAC.

The pattern of donations went to top Senate races and then a set of the top several dozen races that Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) listed for Frist a few months ago, Catignani said. After hitting those top races, Frist asked Hastert for a list of second-tier races. In all, Frist gave to 58 GOP House candidates this year.

While much of Frist’s political future is tied to his ability to expand the GOP’s majority in today’s elections and the 2006 races, it’s no secret that potential White House contenders use their fundraising abilities and donations to woo critical supporters in the early stages of a presidential campaign.

Leftover cash from leadership PACs, unlike that from re-election committees, cannot be transferred into a campaign for a different office, meaning that Frist will not be able to tap the VolPAC cash for a presidential campaign if he chooses to go for the White House.

But he can funnel the money to candidates and party committees in states that will play key roles in selecting the next Republican presidential nominee, such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Indeed, there are some indications that Frist money is already heading into those key states, particularly Iowa, home to the nation’s first caucus.

In recent months, Frist gave $5,000 each — the maximum for the general election — to two Iowa GOP House incumbents facing relatively easy re-elections, Reps. Tom Latham and Jim Nussle, as well as to Stan Thompson (R), the challenger trying to oust Rep. Leonard Boswell (D). He also gave $5,000 to the Iowa Republican Party, a donation that ostensibly helps boost President Bush’s chances in the critical swing state. And he also gave $5,000 to the Linn County party committee in the Hawkeye State.

Frist also gave $1,000 to a PAC called Campaign of One, a committee geared toward turning out the vote. It’s being run by Brian Kennedy, a Washington lawyer who is the former chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa.

New campaign finance laws now forbid Members of Congress from operating soft-money accounts. So, unlike the Democratic presidential candidates in the ’04 cycle, who spent 2001-2002 pouring six-figure checks into key committees, any Congressional contenders for the White House in 2008 will be limited in what they can give from their PACs to state party committees.

But because he has so much cash left over this year, and because he can presumably raise another $3 million to $4 million next cycle, Frist will be in a position to make major six-figure donations to gubernatorial candidates in Iowa. A federal PAC just has to register in Iowa and it can then give to state candidates, and there are no contribution limits.

Nussle, already on the receiving end of Frist cash for his House race this year, is seriously considering running for governor in 2006.

Frist has begun reaching out to key players in other critical states with money for this cycle that could begin to sow the political seeds of goodwill for the early primary and caucus states.

Rep. Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.) received a $5,000 check from Frist’s PAC in the third quarter. And in early October Frist sent $5,000 to the Granite State campaign of Gov. Craig Benson (R).

In South Carolina, another state with a key early presidential primary, Frist has been especially generous of late, giving $10,000 to the state party — money that his associates argue is designed to boost the Senate bid of Rep. Jim DeMint (R). But Frist also cut $1,000 checks in early October to three South Carolina GOP incumbents cruising to an easy re-election this fall: Reps. Henry Brown, Gresham Barrett and Joe Wilson.

Brown and Wilson won re-election in 2002 with, respectively, 89 percent and 84 percent, while Barrett won his first term that year by a more than 2-to-1 margin with 67 percent.

He also gave $1,000 to former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who is a virtual lock to secure DeMint’s seat today.

Catignani said the donations to House candidates in South Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire have more to do with the Senate races in those states, or at least the wishes of Senators in those states. With DeMint locked in a tight campaign against former state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, every dollar to House candidates in the Palmetto State could help with the turnout operations statewide. “If one of those House Members wins big, the better it is for DeMint,” he said.

And in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Sens. Chuck Grassley (R) and Judd Gregg (R) are easily winning re-election, respectively, those Senators asked Frist to help out with some of the House races.

This potential tilt toward early 2008 primary states has in no way taken Frist away from his duties raising cash for Senators and challengers up for election today. Frist has given more money from his leadership PAC to House and Senate candidates, as well as party committees, than any other Member of Congress.

In addition, he has bundled from his top donors more than $1.5 million to 14 Senate campaigns, checks that were given to VolPAC but earmarked to those campaigns.

Former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) received the most bundled cash from Frist’s donors — more than $226,000.

Still, even with all of his donations to campaigns and party committees, as well as bundled donations to Senate races, Frist has on occasion given out campaign cash in a way that can only be described as overly generous.

On Oct. 4, for example, VolPAC gave $5,000 to Herman Cain for U.S. Senate and $1,000 to Mac Collins for U.S. Senate, the two losers in July’s Georgia Senate primary. Frist’s donations will help retire their debt.

Even more generously, Frist gave $1,000 to Cam Cavasso’s Senate campaign on Oct. 4.

Never heard of him?

Cavasso is the political lamb being led to electoral slaughter in Hawaii against seven-term Sen. Daniel Inouye (D). Cavasso has raised just $34,000 for his campaign.

Frist is the only Member of Congress to give to the Republican’s long-shot race.