In 2000, Democrats had just lost the White House, failed to take back the House and were moving closer to supporting a bipartisan campaign finance effort to change the rules for hard money and party campaign committees. And they were terrified — afraid they’d keep being beaten by the very financing changes they supported.
The McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, enacted in March 2002, seriously restricted the amount of money any individual could give to a party campaign committee.
Enter Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, a rising power in the House. She’d go on to use her fundraising prowess to climb the House leadership ladder — but first she pushed Democrats to believe that if they didn’t give money they’d already raised to their own party campaign committees, they’d never be able to match GOP big-dollar donors and always would be outraised by Republicans.
So Democrats set out to change the way they raised money. Largely beginning in the House, the party put a new focus on encouraging members to give money they’d already raised using their campaign operations and PACs. These gifts to the larger campaign committees have been overshadowed by the flood of outside money that poured into the system since a series of Supreme Court decisions struck down pieces of the McCain-Feingold law. But their legacy lives on in Washington and has helped contribute to the Democrats' surprisingly successful fundraising efforts in 2014, a year generally seen as being more favorable to Republicans.
Brian Wolff, whom Pelosi brought from California to D.C. to help build her fundraising machine, recalls overseeing some of the changes post-2002. “My job was to transition a party whose members would basically sit down at the phones in a room in the last week before a filing deadline and they would raise $1 million [in] contributions. That would be their quarter,” he said. Now a lobbyist, Wolff served as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006 and had senior leadership roles in fundraising before that. “We had to transform [the party] into a grassroots organization,” he said.
Though Pelosi’s personal fundraising base and its effect on House campaigns have been well-documented over the years — just this week, Politico reported she raised $80 million for House Democrats this cycle — the cultural shift that began in the House under her leadership also has had a significant effect on Senate campaign committees.
Today, the disparity between the parties when it comes to member giving is pronounced.
Senate Democrats — 25 of whom served in the House and 14 of whom served there in the 2000s — have been trained to cut big checks to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from their personal committees, or PACs. Republicans, much to the lament of many top GOP operatives in Washington, have not.
Sitting Democratic senators have given almost $5 million to the DSCC so far during 2014, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics requested by Yahoo News. Republicans, who are hoping to take back the Senate majority, have pitched in only $1.6 million to their National Republican Senatorial Committee.
This election cycle is far from an outlier. In 2012, Senate Democratic members gave $8.5 million more than Republicans to their campaign committee—more than five times as much. In the 2010 cycle, Democrats gave nearly $6 million more to the DSCC than Republicans did to the NRSC. In 2008, Democratic members gave $11.2 million more and in 2006, $5.4 million more to their respective campaign committees.
Multiple top Republican Senate campaign sources approached by Yahoo News for this story conceded that there is a wide “cultural” difference in giving between Democratic and Republican members and that the difference runs from the top on down, with Democratic leaders consistently giving more.
“It seems to be a cultural problem, I would say, in the sense that there is no culture [for Senate Republicans] to give, where in the other three committees, there is that culture, where if you’re not in cycle, you still give,” said one senior Republican operative, referring to the two Democratic campaign committees and the House GOP’s campaign wing.
One of the biggest drawbacks to members not giving to their own committees, this Republican said, is that the money that comes via transfers from members has no overhead cost attached. The aide estimated that for every $100,000 the NRSC raises through events and fundraisers, it has to spend $30,000 to $40,000 to do it. So the same sum given directly by members from their own individual fundraising operations would be worth much more than its simple numeric value.
This multiplier effect is why these transfers have been helpful for Democrats, and why Senate Democrats followed the House’s lead in pressuring their members to give to party committees. A Democrat who was senior in Senate leadership at the time Pelosi was making her push to open up members’ wallets reflected on her effect on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
“Pelosi was such a fierce fundraiser that … it challenged the Senate Democrats to do it and now you have more people from the House going into the Senate,” the Democrat said. “It’s a culture of a ‘rising tide lifts all boats.’ Schumer came and saw the success of what Nancy and the DCCC did, and looked at it and said, ‘It’s everybody getting credit for this.’”
Reid has become a serious fundraiser in his own right, and former DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer of New York, who spent the 2006 and 2008 cycles at the head of the committee, helped drill senators on some of the same fundraising themes that dominated the House. The Democratic leaders are good at putting their money where their mouths are; Schumer cut a $1 million check from his campaign coffers in 2012 to help the Democrats keep their Senate majority.
But that same attitude just hasn’t crossed over to Senate Republicans, even as their House GOP counterparts have built up a similar strategy of forcing members to give to their National Republican Campaign Committee.
Senate Republicans both on the Hill and involved in their campaign operations talk about how there is less incentive for GOP senators to give because in the three other caucuses leaders have more influence over who can get prime committee placements, for example. But there was a divide that broke open more than a decade ago when both parties were staring down the barrel of imperfect changes to the campaign finance system, and it has not been bridged.
Wolff, the Democrat, points to the fundamental and ideological split between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to campaign giving.
“Republicans more relied on overturning McCain-Feingold to get [their fundraising] to where they used to be,” Wolff said. “We looked at members … and we pretty much budgeted what their dues would be. In the early 2000s, what that did was, all of those members who migrated to the Senate, it changed that culture there, too. They had been brought up in their elected life in a culture of giving and what that meant for the party.”
And Republicans, privately, do not dispute this view.
“Democrats have had to rely a little bit more exclusively on the DSCC in a post-campaign finance world. Each one of them has felt the tangible benefits of what the senatorial committee is doing for them and they feel compelled to participate when they're outside of cycle,” said one active Republican campaign operative. “There's a constant effort to try to get Republican members to participate more. Sometimes there has been more success than others, but there's never been any parity to where Democrats are.”
According to a review of recent FEC records, Senate Democrats, including those in cycle, out of cycle or retiring, already have cut 25 six-figure checks, as opposed to seven on the Republican side. It’s a stark contrast — but also representative of a culture where members can be shamed into giving by having their names called out at caucus meetings if they haven’t yet opened up their wallets, and leaders feel compelled to set the money-giving pace.
The two top Republicans in the Senate are both in cycle and spending on their own reelections, though the disparity between leaders is quite significant even when they’re not up for re-election. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has given $64,800 to the NRSC via the McConnell Senate Committee this cycle, though sources say he does not use the committee’s funds in his own races.
There are also just more outlets for Republicans, who tend to be more assertive in expressing their differences with each other, to be influential without giving to the party. A senator like Ted Cruz of Texas does not need to curry favor with his colleagues or leadership by assisting them financially, when his ideology is anti-establishment and his base is conservative grassroots.
GOP sources also pointed to the multiple, current Republican senators, including Cruz, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, who have their own national ticket aspirations and how they use their PACS as “sort of exploratory committees” as opposed to a bank for the NRSC.
“It has everything to do with their own brand and they want credit,” the GOP campaign operative said. “I don't think the conference is built on a bunch of folks that aren't team players. I think the vast majority of them are team players. [But] the way the Senate Republican Conference is built is on a bunch of senators who have mostly taken care of themselves.”