Party Donations Show G.O.P. Edge
By LESLIE WAYNE
Published: March 7, 2008
WASHINGTON — For all the success that Democratic presidential candidates have had in raising money — taking in a combined total of over $500 million in the current race — the Republicans are beating them in one crucial area of fund-raising: the money being raised by the parties themselves.
The Democratic National Committee ended 2007 nearly flat broke, with cash of $2.9 million and debts of $2.2 million. Since then it has raised some money, paid down debt and managed to put $3.7 million in its piggy bank. This compares, however, with $25 million that the Republican National Committee has in cash on hand, after having raised $97 million since the beginning of 2007.
And with Senator John McCain now the presumptive Republican nominee, party officials started plotting with his campaign this week on deploying those resources against the well-financed Democratic candidacies of Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
Already, President Bush, who spoke at 29 Republican fund-raisers and is credited with raising $63.5 million last year, is lined up for more R.N.C. fund-raising in the weeks ahead. This money is likely to provide the financial muscle for Mr. McCain to continue his attacks on both Democratic candidates.
“The Republican National Committee’s strength is an important indicator,” said Alex Conant, the R.N.C. spokesman. “The D.N.C. has had trouble raising money, and the R.N.C. is well-positioned to help our nominee financially. It is our mission to get McCain elected president, and that is our focus. Fund-raising is a priority.”
Such party money can play a vital role in presidential campaigns because candidates are barred from using money they raise for the general election until they are nominated at the conventions. So the party money is often used before then — as well as after — to finance advertisements, direct mail and, ultimately, get-out-the-vote efforts.
Democrats say their limited party fund-raising is a result of several factors, including the competition for dollars from the presidential candidates and the party’s Congressional fund-raising committees. And they also say the D.N.C. is hamstrung by its inability to raise money in any serious way without a presidential nominee to rally around.
Since the beginning of 2007, the Democrats have raised $60.5 million, and have spent most of it. Not only does the D.N.C. have far less cash on hand than does the R.N.C., but in this election cycle the R.N.C. has also outraised the D.N.C. by $37 million.
Party officials maintain that the D.N.C. is cash poor partly by design, reflecting a strategy by Howard Dean, the party’s chairman, to invest in building a party infrastructure rather than amassing a huge war chest.
Since he became chairman after the 2004 election, Mr. Dean has begun what he called the 50-state strategy, opening offices and hiring staff members in every state, even ones that are traditional Republican strongholds. He has also invested in a huge voter database — one that is designed to rival the Republican Party’s sophisticated voter file — that he hopes will pay off this year and allow Democratic candidates to find likely voters and make specific pitches to them.
How the costly 50-state strategy — and the cash shortfall that it has created — play out over the coming election will be a referendum on the tenure of Mr. Dean, who has had a prickly relationship with many of the party’s top officials. Under Mr. Dean’s tenure, D.N.C. fund-raising has steadily climbed, along with its expenses. So far, Mr. Dean has spent $170 million since the last presidential election to turn his vision for the party into a reality, with nearly $60 million of that raised in the last year alone.
“He’s doing the job of the party chairman in a very different way,” said Elaine C. Kamarck, a D.N.C. member and lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
“And people don’t like that,” added Ms. Kamarck, who wrote a paper “Howard Dean’s Fifty-State Strategy and the 2006 Midterm Elections.”
Democratic officials say they believe that once a nominee is in place, donors will switch from supporting the candidates to supporting the party. In 2004, for instance, the D.N.C. raised $344 million, most of it coming in after it was clear that Senator John Kerry would be the nominee.
“The D.N.C. has tremendous fund-raising capacity this year,” said Don Fowler, a former chairman of the committee, who supports Mr. Dean’s strategy. “The mood of the country, the satisfaction with our candidates and the optimism about our party suggest that we can raise the money for 2008. We don’t need to have as much money in the bank under these circumstances.”
But already, the Republicans are preparing to put their resources to use on behalf of Mr. McCain. Not only did the candidate visit the R.N.C. headquarters on Wednesday, but Rick Davis, Mr. McCain’s campaign manager, sat down this week with Robert M. Duncan, the party chairman, to review resources that will be available to the McCain campaign, including research, communications staff and positions that the McCain campaign can now help fill.
“We’ve been preparing for the last several months,” Mr. Duncan said Wednesday. “We’ve been raising the money. We’ve been doing the research that’s necessary. We’ve been writing the victory plans that have been necessary to win the electoral votes. We’ve been putting the staff together. And all of that is available to Senator McCain, as our presumptive nominee, as of today.”
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On Wednesday, the R.N.C. sent out its first fund-raising appeal on behalf of Mr. McCain, asking donors for up to $1,000 apiece because he “will unify our party around our core conservative principles.”
By contrast to the R.N.C. and its fund-raising success, the D.N.C., by many accounts, needed to be shaken up when Mr. Dean took over. For years, it had tapped a small group of wealthy donors and poured money every two or four years into battleground states, while ignoring the rest of the nation as unwinnable. There was little infrastructure aside from the party’s office in Washington.
In many ways, the D.N.C. is now taking a page from the Republican playbook. Over the years, the R.N.C. spent hundreds of millions of dollars building a nationwide party organization and creating its much-celebrated “Voter Vault,” a sophisticated database that can spew out detailed information on Republican voters and get them to the polls.
“When Dean became chairman, a lot of people did hand-wringing on why we didn’t win in 2004,” said Tom McMahon, the D.N.C.’s executive director. “A lot of state chairmen wanted to know why they were written off. We had laid out a battle plan that had written off half the country. We needed to build a foundation.”
To that end, the D.N.C. hired 180 local organizers and opened offices in 50 states. It set up training classes for organizers. It poured money into statehouse races, with the idea that state legislatures are the key to Congressional redistricting. To close the gap with tech-savvy Republicans, it spent $10 million to develop “VoteBuilder,” a databank with the names of every registered voter in the United States.
“The 50-state strategy is creating tangible results, ” said Lawrence Gates, chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party, which now gets $140,000 a year from the D.N.C. to hire five local organizers. Mr. Gates said that half this traditionally Republican state’s Congressional delegation and half of the state’s elected officers are now Democrats — “and we are poised for more.”
But that has been a costly strategy, with the party left in the red at the end of last year. Democrats are hopeful that when the party selects a nominee the party’s coffers will be refilled.
Joe Trippi, a Dean campaign strategist in 2004, predicted that “as soon as Clinton or Obama get nominated, you will see the money flow to the D.N.C. and it will outraise the R.N.C. by a large margin.”
And Democrats see other signs of hope, since under Mr. Dean, off-election-year fund-raising has been going up — while it has been going down at the R.N.C. In 2007 alone, the D.N.C. raised $55 million, which was $10 million above its 2003 total. The R.N.C. raised $22 million less in 2007 than it did in 2003, a situation that is expected to improve now that the party has its nominee.
Leaders of the Democratic Party will be watching to see if Mr. Dean’s strategy pays off.
“There is no question that Democrats would like the D.N.C. to be in a better financial position vis-à-vis the R.N.C.,” said Alixandria Lapp, former campaign director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “He started a bottoms-up, state-party-focus and has been consistent in fulfilling that promise. So it is not a huge surprise that many in Washington are not fans.”