Clinton Sets Intimidating Pace

Posted July 26, 2005 at 6:48pm

From Grapevine, Texas, to Greenwich, Conn., the donations poured in.

The $6.1 million that New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) collected between April 1 and June 30 included contributions from all 50 states and a handful from Puerto Rico.

Winery owners, movie studio executives and political consultants gave. So did homemakers, an aircraft maintenance technician and a waiter at a Cheesecake Factory.

Clinton’s latest fundraising report, which she filed last week with the Federal Election Commission, provides a window into the breadth of the New York Senator’s national fundraising network, something quickly revealing itself to be her greatest asset in a potential 2008 presidential bid.

Though Clinton aides continue to insist that the Senator (and her $12.6 million war chest) are entirely focused on winning a second term in 2006, she is also continuing to nurture and grow a national donor base that would firmly establish her as the financial frontrunner, should she decide to run for national office in three years.

“What she is doing is raising the admission price for everyone [in 2008],” said Erik Smith, a Democratic consultant with Westhill Partners and a top aide to former Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (Mo.) 2004 presidential bid. “She is driving the market.”

Chris Lehane, a senior adviser to Gen. Wesley Clark’s 2004 bid, put it more bluntly.

“Clinton is sitting at the fundraising table and everyone else is like the family dog — very well-liked but only getting the crumbs and some scraps that are covertly sneaked to them under the table,” Lehane said.

Aside from Clinton, Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Russ Feingold (Wis.) and Joe Biden (Del.) are mentioned as 2008 candidates. Govs. Mark Warner (Va.), Tom Vilsack (Iowa) and Bill Richardson (N.M.) are also among those in the mix.

None, however, has shown the fundraising capacity of Clinton to date.

Since coming into office in January 2001, Clinton has raised $21 million through Friends of Hillary, her principal campaign committee. She has raked in an additional $6.4 million through HILLPAC, her leadership political action committee.

And, she has helped raise in the neighborhood of $45 million for other candidates since being elected to the Senate, according to Friends of Hillary Executive Director Patti Solis Doyle.

All told, Clinton has raised more than $72 million for herself and other Democrats in the past four and a half years.

For now, Clinton’s dollars are dedicated to helping her win re-election in New York.

In the eyes of many political observers, Clinton must run up the score against the eventual Republican opponent, drawing in large numbers of independents and even some Republicans upstate to prove her crossover appeal would translate to the national level.

Ed Cox, the son-in-law of the late President Richard Nixon, former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer and attorney William Brenner are currently running on the Republican side. Former Westchester County District Attorney Jeannine Pirro (R) is also pondering the race.

Given the level of animosity toward Clinton among those on the ideological right nationally, it seems likely that any of the potential nominees will be at least moderately well-financed, forcing Clinton to spend perhaps $15 million to $20 million on her re-election effort.

“Having worked on the 2000 campaign, I know that whoever the opponent, he or she will be well-funded,” Doyle said.

In 2000, Clinton beat then-Rep. Rick Lazio (R) by a wider than expected 55 percent to 43 percent margin. Clinton and Lazio raised and spent roughly $40 million each on that contest.

Even so, if Clinton continues to raise and spend money at her current pace (netting roughly $4 million per three-month quarter), she would likely end 2006 with more than $30 million in the bank; any remaining funds in her Senate account could be transferred directly to a presidential committee.

Such a large chunk of dollars would jumpstart a presidential bid, forcing all of the other would-be 2008 candidates to play catchup.

In interviews with a number of Democratic strategists with experience in the last presidential primary, they agreed almost unanimously that, given Clinton’s fundraising prowess, none of the other serious candidates will be able to stay within the spending caps put in place by the FEC.

“It is highly unlikely that anyone who stays within the federal financing system is our next nominee,” said David Plouffe, a partner in AKP Media, a Democratic consulting firm.

A candidate who accepts matching funds, which amounted to $19 million in 2004, from the FEC can spend roughly $45 million between when a candidacy is announced and the party convention in the summer of an election year. These guidelines include strict spending caps in traditional early caucus and primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

In 2004, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean became the first Democratic candidate in more than three decades to reject public financing in the primaries; he went on to raise more than $50 million in his ultimately unsuccessful effort.

Kerry followed Dean’s lead, spurning matching funds and instead dumping millions in personal funds into his Iowa campaign, a decision that delivered him a caucus victory and a shot of momentum that helped secure for him the nomination in the compressed primary process.

Should the nomination fight again be as frontloaded as it was in 2004 (eight days between Iowa and New Hampshire and then a slate of primaries just one week later), it could lessen the impact of Clinton’s financial superiority, argued Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf.

“If you are fighting in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Arizona that is different than if you are also fighting in a California or a New Jersey,” Elmendorf said.

Under that line of thinking if a large state with costly media markets moved itself up to the front end of the nomination process, Clinton’s likely financial edge would become a much greater advantage over her potential opponents.

Regardless of the eventual shape of the nominating calendar, Clinton would likely enjoy the luxury of running a campaign in which access to money is not an issue, a situation none of her potential rivals will enjoy, said Plouffe.

“It certainly does provide you the opportunity to fund every good idea you have,” he added.

While Clinton’s fundraising is a major advantage in a potential race for the White House, history shows that candidates who raise massive sums are sometimes unable to translate their dollars into electoral victories — especially, as is often the case, if they experience an early (and unanticipated) setback.

In 1996, then Texas Sen. Phil Gramm raised nearly $30 million for a national bid, but dropped out after a fifth place finish in the Iowa caucuses.

That same year, wealthy publisher Steve Forbes (who, unlike Clinton, began the race as a virtual unknown) spent tens of millions of his own money but left the race after finishing fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire.

It remains to be seen how Clinton would handle this almost inevitable stumble but most neutral political observers seem to think the depth of her financial support will more than make up for any error.

“Clinton is in the strongest position any non-incumbent presidential candidate has ever been in the modern history of the Democratic Party,” Lehane said.