‘Mod Squad’ Aids Centrist Democrats

Posted July 17, 2007 at 6:30pm

A well-connected group of ex-Senate staffers is pulling together a self-described “Mod Squad” to put some financial firepower behind the election and re-election of moderate Senate Democrats.

A new political action committee — aptly called The Moderate Democrats PAC but more informally referred to as the “Mod Squad” — will hold its kickoff event tonight at a private home on Capitol Hill.

Democratic Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Tom Carper (Del.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) are headlining the fundraiser and expected to attend.

“Sen. Baucus feels very strongly that the party ought to continue to be a big tent and this is a way to help moderate candidates,” Baucus Chief of Staff Jim Messina said. “He’s very excited about this new opportunity.”

Baucus is one of a handful of moderate Democrats representing conservative states up for re-election in 2008, though he currently is on solid ground to win a sixth term.

Organizers of the new PAC said they hope to fill a void, since there is no entity on the Senate side devoted solely to helping protect and elect moderate Democrats.

They said that while several policy-oriented organizations currently exist to provide assistance and resources for ideological moderates in the Senate — including Third Way, the New Democrat Network and the Democratic Leadership Council — there is little to no financial support mechanism attached to those efforts.

“These groups are all doing policy work on behalf of moderates,” said one of the organizers of the new PAC. “There really isn’t an entity that is providing fundraising for these same people.”

By contrast, on the House side the Blue Dog Coalition and New Democrat Coalition are able to provide their moderate-to- conservative Members and endorsed candidates with financial support through their PACs.

This past cycle, the Blue Dog PAC raised $1.2 million and spent a little more than $1 million — $425,000 of which went directly to federal candidates — in helping to elect moderate and conservative Democrats to the House.

Pryor, who also is up for re-election in 2008, said he couldn’t speak directly to the Mod Squad’s efforts, but he said he embraces any move to aid centrist candidates and incumbents. Having no set constituency from which to draw contributions can often prove daunting, he said.

“In general terms, the way the fundraising world is geared right now, you do very well if you are firmly to the left or firmly to the right,” Pryor said.

“But if you are in the middle it can be much harder to raise funds for your election or re-election.”

Aside from Pryor and Baucus, Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) are seen as the incumbents most likely to get support from the new PAC this cycle. The PAC also may look to help candidates such as former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D), who is being recruited heavily to run against Sen. John Sununu (R), and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), who is the Democrats’ top choice to run in the event Sen. John Warner (R) decides to retire.

The initial steering committee for the PAC includes six one-time chiefs of staff to current or former Senators who have gone on to lucrative jobs on K Street and other Democratic operatives with strong ties to other moderate groups.

Among those involved in the effort:

• Kelly Bingel, a former chief of staff to Lincoln and now a lobbyist with Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti. Bingel’s work for Lincoln dates back to her days in the House, when the now-Senator was one of the founding members of the Blue Dogs.

• Jon Cowan, co-founder and president of Third Way, the nonpartisan policy and strategy group founded in 2005 to support centrist, pro-business interests. He previously founded and ran Americans for Gun Safety.

• Dwight Fettig, former legislative director to Johnson and now director of government relations for Freddie Mac.

• Shannon Finley, a partner with Capitol Counsel LLC. She was formerly a consultant and fundraiser for Baucus.

• Jeff Forbes, a former Baucus chief of staff and now a founding partner at the lobbying firm Cauthen Forbes & Williams.

• Brian Griffin, a former top leadership staffer for Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and now a lobbyist with the Duberstein Group.

• Jonathon Jones, former chief of staff to Carper and now with Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart. Jones also was involved in the founding of Third Way.

• Mark Kadesh, a former chief of staff for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and now a partner at Bartlett, Bendall & Kadesh.

• Michael Lewan, a former top aide to Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) who has worked closely with the New Democrat Network and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He is a lobbyist with Brown Rudnick Berlack Israels.

• Buddy Menn, a lobbyist for Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc. and one-time chief of staff to ex-Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.).

• Helen Milby, finance director for the New Democrat Coalition PAC who has other political and nonprofit clients as well.

The PAC’s treasurer is Steve Patterson, another former chief of staff to Lincoln.

The organization is currently being operated from the Capitol Hill offices of Benchmark Strategies, a small fundraising and political consulting firm run by Democratic fundraiser Jen Mueller.

Mueller and Sue Hothem, a former DLC staffer and now a partner at Benchmark, are also serving on the steering committee.

Admission to tonight’s inaugural fundraiser ranges from $5,000 at the founders circle level to $500 for friends.

Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.