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President is big winner in world without soft money

Despite passage of the most ambitious campaign bill since the Watergate era, many players in financing elections will find their roles untouched _ or even enhanced.

As an example, Ted Welch, one of the Republican Party's most successful fundraisers, said he only wished that the bill would take effect before this year's congressional elections, not after, because it would help him collect more money more efficiently for former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee for his Senate race.

That is because under the legislation, the amount an individual can give to a candidate in a federal race will double to $2,000 from $1,000.

"I wish I could get $2,000 contributions now," Welch said. "I could raise twice as much money in the same amount of time."

Because the bill plugs the gusher of soft money from corporations and wealthy donors that has become so vital to the political parties, the high rollers who could write huge unlimited checks to the national parties will find that their role will not be as glamorous or easy. Instead of writing six-figure soft-money checks to the national parties to help presidential contenders, their outlet now will be to lavish their money on state parties.

Yet the legislation could empower another class of power brokers: fundraisers who may not be well-known multimillionaires but who are industrious about soliciting money from large groups of people. Inside the world of politics and money, these fundraisers are known as bundlers. With the prohibition of the soft money, the premium will be on the harder-to-raise hard money that can be amassed in increments of no more than $2,000.

"It will enhance the role of people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and make calls and get lots of individual contributions," said former Rep. Mel Levine of California, who raised an amount in seven figures for Al Gore's presidential campaign. "People who are so committed to a cause or a candidate, and who have sufficient access to enough people to write $2,000 checks, will have great influence."

Though Democrats pressed most energetically for the legislation, its biggest immediate beneficiary will be President Bush, and it is no wonder that he brushed aside deep concerns of Republican congressional leaders and agreed to sign the bill.

A group of Bush's backers called the Pioneers raised $113-million in private money, the most in presidential campaign history. And it was all in small chunks of $1,000. In the Republican presidential primary season, Bush's hard-money network raised so much cash that he opted to forgo federal matching funds, which would have restricted his spending in various state contests.

Now that the measure doubles the limit per donor to $2,000, the job of the Pioneers will be easier. Bush will be able to preserve a huge campaign treasury while his eventual opponent is forced to spend precious resources in what Democrats expect to be a divisive primary struggle.

"In the short run this will benefit Republicans because they have a larger hard money donor base and a president who is King Kong in hard money," said David Magleby, dean of social sciences at Brigham Young University and an expert in campaign finance.

Bundlers will find their clout enhanced under the new bill because corporations, unions and special interest groups will no longer be permitted to donate large sums directly to political parties or to earmark their contributions for candidates. Those who can bundle hard money contributions from individual executives or people they know through other donor networkscan legally pass large numbers of checks along to candidates in a single envelope, and claim credit for the bigger amount.

That is how Enron Corp. channeled many of its donations. The twist, in fact, is that players in the Enron debacle, which sparked much of the momentum for the legislation, could continue many of their past fundraising practices under the new bill. In the 2000 campaign, Enron gave $499,600 in contributions from individuals and $280,043 from political action committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Those donations would still be permitted.

Since the legislation does not tighten controls on political action committees, those committees could to some degree displace the national parties, whose budgets would be slashed by the elimination of soft money. Many of the largest PAC's, like those of teachers, environmentalists and unions such as government employees, help out Democrats. Others, like gun owners and real estate agents, favor Republicans.