Romney breaks from the pack

Mitt Romney is dominating fundraising in the nascent GOP 2012 presidential field and pushing ahead with a strategy to bolster not just midterm congressional campaigns but state-level ones — as well as his own.

The former Massachusetts governor, who sought the Republican White House nomination in 2008, has put considerable distance between himself and his would-be opponents, not just on the money front but operationally.

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That he will seek the party’s nod again seems all but a given. And, with the depth of his coffers now apparent, he stands as the arguable front-runner in a field that remains relatively narrow, perhaps with just half a year until the next White House campaign begins in earnest.

A key part of Romney’s strategy appears to be building up state candidates and parties in critical early presidential voting states — a move he hopes will help him, in turn, with his own likely presidential bid.

His potential challengers are doing the same. Officials in early voting states say they are capitalizing on a favorable environment for the GOP to help the party win statehouses and governorships.

“I think Iowa Republicans beyond 2010 will look very favorably on the candidates that help us win,” Matthew Strawn, chairman of the state Republican Party there, told The Hill.

“Folks have discovered this is one more way to get noticed and build political capital,” said Joel Sawyer, executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party.

Romney’s money haul stands out. His Free and Strong America political action committee, and five other state PACs, have raised more than $1.8 million combined in the second quarter and doled out nearly $350,000 to Republican campaigns and causes. In all, the PAC has given to more than 150 campaigns in 2010. Romney has donated to more than 70 congressional candidates, 13 U.S. Senate candidates and nine gubernatorial campaigns.

He has also given to 60 state legislative candidates: 34 from Georgia, 20 from South Carolina and three from New Hampshire.

Romney has donated heavily to candidates in the early presidential voting states, including $42,000 to Nikki Haley in South Carolina and $20,000 to Terry Branstad in Iowa. He even made two donations to members of the Greenville, S.C. County Council.

In New Hampshire, Romney has also donated $30,000 to the state GOP since 2009 and $7,500 to local and state special-election candidates.

Former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and even Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour have likewise helped the early primary state parties raise money for 2010.

An Iowa GOP official said Pawlenty is planning to station a staffer in the Hawkeye State to help the party win the gubernatorial and legislative races. (Pawlenty’s spokesman “wouldn’t rule it out” but said no one has been hired.)

Pawlenty’s PAC, Freedom First, pulled in $723,501 during the second quarter and has donated nearly $84,000 to Republican candidates. The PAC will report more than $939,000 cash on hand.

Like Romney, Pawlenty has donated directly to the New Hampshire GOP. He recently made a $5,000 contribution and just opened a state-level PAC to give directly to candidates.

Officials have taken note of the candidates’ focus on local and state races.

“We’ve definitely seen increased activity and involvement in our state and local races,” said Ryan Williams, a spokesman for the New Hampshire GOP. “We’ve had a high degree of activity already.”

The buildup comes “because everyone realizes we’re in the position to make significant gains in New Hampshire this cycle,” he said, citing the governor’s and Senate race and two competitive House races. “They want to make friends.”

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Pawlenty’s haul, while significantly less than Romney’s, is notable because it comes while he still occupies the governor’s office. In addition to dealing with a state budget battle, which kept Pawlenty in Minnesota for much of May, he is the vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and has traveled and raised money on behalf of several Republican campaigns for governor.

Pawlenty has made three trips to New Hampshire this year and has planned a three-day swing through eastern Iowa later this month .

Pawlenty gave just shy of $10,000 to Republicans in South Carolina this quarter, including $3,500 to Haley and $2,000 to congressional hopeful Tim Scott. Pawlenty donated $3,000 to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). His PAC also gave $10,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Palin has followed the same model.

SarahPAC, which raised $865,815 in the second quarter, doled out some $87,500 to Republican candidates, including several in Iowa and South Carolina, according to a report filed last Sunday with the Federal Election Commission.

The PAC made donations of $5,000 to Iowa gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and also gave $5,000 to Scott.

Palin made a high-profile public endorsement of Haley, but did not write her campaign a check during the second quarter. The committee ended the quarter with more than $1 million in cash on hand.

Barbour raised just shy of $278,000 for his PAC through the end of May — a number that doesn’t quite tell the tale of his fundraising prowess or clout within the party.

Under his leadership, the RGA has shattered fundraising records this cycle, raising more than $18.9 million in the second quarter alone. That leaves the committee with a staggering $40 million cash on hand heading into the most critical stretch of the midterms.

With that kind of financial clout to wield, there are likely to be some newly minted Republican governors indebted to Barbour come January. Several early presidential primary states, including Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina, Florida and Michigan, have contested gubernatorial races.

Another potential GOP hopeful, Santorum has taken a different tack in the run-up to 2012, giving just $19,000 to Republican candidates from January through March. The second-quarter numbers for Santorum’s America’s Foundation PAC are not yet available.

Instead, Santorum has spent more than $700,000 on direct mail between 2009 and 2010 to build a national fundraising base that could aid a presidential run.

Gingrich has focused on training up-and-coming candidates. He’s conducted seminars in New Hampshire and Iowa and been to South Carolina to raise money for the state party. The funding comes through his American Solutions for Winning the Future, a so-called 527 group. The group raised $3.4 million in the second quarter and has about $1 million cash on hand, according to officials.

Gingrich has also started a PAC by the same name, but it raised only $61,000 in the second quarter.