While hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in battles over President Barack Obama’s ambitious legislative agenda in Washington, underneath the radar some of the Republican Party’s next best hopes are laying the groundwork for the bid to replace him — or at least secure their place in the GOP hierarchy.
Consider this: In the first half of 2009, Mitt Romney’s political committee paid $188,000 to a small army of consultants, Newt Gingrich’s dropped $628,000 on charter flights, Mike Huckabee’s wrote staff paychecks totaling $131,000 and Sarah Palin’s spent $107,000 raising more money.
All four are considered potential presidential candidates, and the flurry of campaign finance activity, outlined in reports filed late last month with the Federal Election Commission and Internal Revenue Service, may hold clues about their prospects — and intentions.
Each insist they’re using their efforts to help rebuild the party — and the conservative movement — after the GOP’s debilitating losses in the past two election cycles, not jockeying for 2012 pole position.
But the manner in which such money is being spent suggests they are as much focused on accumulating the resources for a national infrastructure and keeping high their national profiles as party-building activities.
“If you’re a Republican thinking about running against Obama, you just can’t wake up in January 2011 and say, ‘I think I want to run for president.’ If you wait until then, it’s too late,” said Michael Toner, a former FEC chairman who was general counsel for George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000 and Fred Thompson’s in 2008. “You’re going to have to be able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, so you have to spend 2009 and 2010 building out your fundraising base, your infrastructure and your network.”
The political groups run by Romney, Gingrich, Huckabee and Palin, combined with those run by Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia and Sens. John Thune of South Dakota and Jim DeMint of South Carolina (also thought of as at least possible 2012 GOP prospects) brought in a combined $12.9 million in the first half of the year, a POLITICO analysis of IRS and FEC reports found.
These entities, which are not campaign committees and are legally barred from directly supporting their own potential campaigns, spent a total of $12.4 million, including $6.2 million on fundraising, $1.2 million on 39 staffers’ salaries and benefits, $851,000 on direct mail, $686,000 on consultants, $192,000 on websites, $123,000 on catering and $111,000 on lawyers. The groups ended June with $2 million in the bank.
Gingrich, who flirted with a 2008 presidential campaign, far outpaced the field, pulling in an impressive $8.1 million. That total is largely because his committee, American Solutions for Winning the Future, is a so-called 527 group, freeing it from federal election laws including the $5,000-per-year limit on contributions to which the other groups analyzed by POLITICO must adhere because they are leadership political action committees.
The former House speaker was able to use his 3-year-old organization, which accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in huge checks from oil companies and other business groups in the first half of the year, to pay a 20-person political staff including longtime aides, and to fund his travel by charter jet and chauffeured town car around the country to promote his books and pet causes, including offshore oil drilling and opposition to the Democratic cap-and-trade proposals. America Solutions spent the majority of its cash — $5.5 million — on telemarketing and direct mail but also found $23,000 to advertise in newspapers, on the Web and in a NASCAR publication.
The goal of American Solutions is not to promote Gingrich but “to provide solutions and transform the country from the world that fails to the world that works,” said Dan Varroney, the group's chief operating officer .
As a 527, American Solutions cannot contribute directly to federal candidates, which is a primary stated purpose of most leadership PACs. Aspiring presidential candidates have doled out contributions from their leadership PACs to politicians in early battleground states in an effort to win influential endorsements, though many of the groups contribute only a tiny fraction of the cash they bring in, leading advocates for stricter campaign finance rules to criticize them as little more than slush funds used by politicians to boost their own careers.
Among the federal leadership PACs POLITICO analyzed, the ones chaired by former Govs. Huckabee of Arkansas, Palin of Alaska and Romney of Massachusetts were the least generous in terms of direct donations, which made up 5 percent or less of the cash they spent in the first six months of the year.
Romney, whose early infrastructure in 2008 allowed his presidential campaign to get off to a quick start, garnered attention in February when his leadership PAC, Free and Strong America, cut $1,000 checks to the dozen House Republicans targeted by Democrats for voting against Obama’s stimulus. In all, the PAC has contributed about $62,000 this year, though a state-based affiliate gave $11,000 more.
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Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said the group contributed to the debate over the GOP's future during the first half of the year by "talk[ing] about issues, messages and themes," and suggested the group would start making more direct donations to candidates as the 2010 election cycle progresses. "You can't plant a garden without doing some spade work first," Fehrnstrom said.
The group, which raised $1.9 million in the first half of the year, has spent the lion’s share of its cash on direct mail and other fundraising efforts, as well as on maintaining the nucleus of Romney’s 2008 campaign team, including über-campaign lawyer Ben Ginsberg, whose firm collected $45,000 in fees from Romney’s group, Fehrnstrom (who was paid $53,000), campaign manager Beth Myers ($60,000) and deputy campaign manager Peter Flaherty ($30,000).
Likewise, Palin’s SarahPAC, which brought in $733,000 in the first six months of the year, spent $240,000 on consulting, fundraising and salaries, compared with $10,000 on campaign contributions.
And Huckabee’s Huck PAC, which raised $305,000, paid more than $243,000 to staffers (including his daughter, Huck PAC Executive Director Sarah Huckabee), consultants and fundraising vendors.
The PACs in POLITICO’s analysis that were most generous with their cash were those run by Republicans with less prominent 2012 profiles: Cantor, Thune and DeMint.
Cantor’s Every Republican Is Crucial (ERIC) PAC contributed $393,000 of the $856,000 it raised this year. Thune’s Heartland Values PAC raised only $61,000, but it donated $27,000. And DeMint’s two PACs, MINT PAC and Senate Conservatives Fund, raised a combined $851,000, spending $616,000 on direct mailings and $65,000 on contributions and independent expenditures to benefit mostly very conservative Republican Senate candidates.
“This is about electing conservatives to the Senate,” said an operative who works with DeMint. “It’s not about DeMint running for president. And I think what he’s doing with the PAC really speaks for itself.”
Cantor, Thune and DeMint can also use their relatively uncontested 2010 reelection bids — for which they’ve raised a combined $14.5 million — to build their donor files and networks, a model Hillary Clinton used during her 2006 Senate reelection that helped set the stage for her 2008 Democratic presidential bid.
Other Republicans are also using their political positions to keep their profiles raised. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has a relatively inactive 527 group, has been traveling the country meeting activists and raising money for his 2011 reelection campaign. It’s not clear how much he’s raised, since he won’t have to disclose his campaign finances for months.
And Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota are expected to use their posts as chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Republican Governors Association to travel the country raising cash for the party’s gubernatorial candidates — and their own profiles.
Pawlenty, who will not seek reelection next year, has been test-driving a national message before activists around the country in recent weeks and is expected to form a federal leadership after he closes out his Minnesota campaign account, according to a source close to him.
Jason Torchinsky, who served as general counsel for Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential bid says these Republicans can wait to make a splash, adding, “They do need to be building their networks now, but there are lots of avenues that they can use to build networks.”