In the wake of the Democratic National Committee’s surprisingly weak February fundraising Democratic insiders are questioning the unusual arrangement that has Gov. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) serving as a part-time chairman until his term as governor ends in January 2010.
The disappointing results come despite conditions that are ripe for a Democratic Party fundraising windfall: The party faithful are still buzzing from Barack Obama’s November presidential victory, Democrats have large congressional majorities and President Obama is riding high in the polls despite a bleak economic picture. On top of that, the party is now in possession of the vaunted 13-million-address email list he used to shatter fundraising records in 2008.
Yet fundraising numbers reported Friday show that in February, Kaine’s first full month as chairman, the Republican National Committee – supposedly plagued by GOP apathy and a chairman who got off to a rocky start, outraised the DNC $5.1 million to $3.3 million.
Though Kaine plans to devote more time to fundraising now that the Virginia legislative session has ended, he won’t be able to completely throw himself into the money chase – or other party business, for that matter – for another eight months.
It’s starting to worry some Beltway Democrats, who are looking to the committee to play heavily in a pair of competitive 2009 gubernatorial races and the 2010 midterm election.
“It’s a 25-hour a day job to maximize all the needs of the Democratic Party in an election cycle – message, money, organizing, staffing – and it’s hard to be incredibly successful if you don’t put in the full time,” said a Democratic fundraiser who is not working with the DNC.
A Democratic operative familiar with the party’s fundraising infrastructure said “if we have elected a chairman whose hands may be tied behind his back, then that’s a problem.”
Both the fundraiser and the operative, who did not want to be identified criticizing Kaine, predicted fundraising would pick up, but said the February results were disconcerting.
To be sure, Democratic donors had been asked to dig deep to help fund Obama’s transition and inauguration. And though Obama is set to attend his first fundraiser for the DNC – and first fundraiser, period – as President on Wednesday, he has mostly shied away from fundraising in the public eye, citing efforts to win bipartisan support for his economic revitalization efforts. Plus, the DNC has yet to aggressively use Obama’s email list to solicit donations.
All those things, plus the troubled economy, hampered DNC fundraising, said committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse. But he conceded Kaine’s absence from the fundraising game didn’t help either.
“We didn’t have either the president or the DNC chair raising money for the DNC in January or in February,” Woodhouse said. “I don’t think these are excuses, this is just reality.”
Kaine decided to refrain from all fundraising during the Virginia General Assembly’s 46-day legislative session out of deference to a Virginia law barring state officials from raising money for their own political committees during the session.
“There was a belief that the spirit of that law in Virginia should be followed” even if it was unclear about whether it applied directly to DNC fundraising, Woodhouse said. “But also, there’s an optics piece to it, and it’s a practical issue, too, because the Virginia legislature is in session for such a short period of time, the governor really has to focus all his time and energy on that.”
The General Assembly is scheduled to reconvene in April to consider any amendments proposed or vetoes issued by Kaine.
But since the regular legislative session ended in late February, Woodhouse said Kain has spent about one day a week at the DNC’s Washington headquarters. That schedule will probably continue until January, he said.
Kaine will become more active in fundraising and other party activities, Woodhouse said, but only to a point.
“He’ll be able to spend more time on the phone with donors. There may be instances where he is able to travel more. Those are the types of things that he didn’t do in February that he may be able to do some more of,” said Woodhouse. “But he’s still the governor and he’s not going to be [at the DNC] a lot until he’s done being governor in January. We understand and respect that and that’s why we have an active set of vice chairs.”
“March will be a better month,” Woodhouse predicted, pointing out that the DNC finance shop wasn’t fully staffed until this month and that the $100 tickets for Wednesday’s fundraiser at the Warner Theater sold out quickly.
Even when Kaine is able to devote himself to the party full time, he’ll be limited by Obama’s decree that the DNC won’t accept contributions from lobbyists and political action committees.
The commitment parallels one then-candidate Obama set forth for his own his presidential campaign in an effort to back up his assertions that he was not beholden to the special interests that he said exerted inordinate influence in Washington.
PACs and lobbyists, though, have not usually played much of a role in presidential fundraising, and Obama relied largely on small online donations in pulling in a record-shattering $750 million.
The groups have traditionally played a much bigger role in funding the DNC and other party committees. In February alone, the RNC accepted $90,000 from PACs, including maximum $15,000 contributions from the PACs for AT&T, Microsoft, the National Education Association, Pfizer and Raytheon.
That, according to a political consultant who works with the DNC, is “the one advantage” the RNC has “which we do not. But that's okay. I think we'll hold our own despite that.”