By Alexander Bolton - 02/02/10 11:00 AM EST
The second- and third-ranking Senate Democratic leaders are doling out huge sums of cash, laying the groundwork for a leadership race should Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid lose reelection.
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the vice chairman of the Democratic Conference, has been the biggest giver to Democratic Senate candidates, contributing $210,000 to colleagues and candidates.
The leaders gave money to newcomers and candidates facing tough races. But they also contributed to those whose reelection prospects seem solid, such as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who last won in liberal Vermont with 71 percent of the vote. While Leahy probably does not need the money for reelection, Durbin and Schumer may feel they need to contribute to his campaign to cement his loyalty.
Both lawmakers gave the money through their leadership political action committees (PACs), which allies say is a sign that they are preparing for a possible leadership battle if Reid (D-Nev.) loses reelection, a prospect that is looking more likely.
Spokesmen for Durbin and Schumer declined requests for comment.
“You have a leadership PAC for a reason: You give to people that you want to support you at some point in the future,” said a former aide to one of the Democratic leaders. “Is a future leadership race part of the calculation when you give? Yes, it is.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), on the other hand, seems to be strengthening his grip on the top job, giving away $330,000 through his leadership PAC in 2009. That exceeds the $310,000 he doled out in 2008 and the $275,000 in 2007.
But McConnell is facing pressure from conservatives to move the party rightward. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who has emerged as the strongest voice in the chamber for that movement, gave away $148,000 to candidates.
The situation with Schumer and Durbin is a delicate one. Both support Reid and do not want to do anything to undermine his reelection effort. But at the same time, they realize — as do many political analysts — that Reid faces a serious threat.
Reid’s job approval rating has hovered around 40 percent in recent polls, and the national political environment is shaping up as a challenging one for Democrats.
The Nevada lawmaker gave far less to Democratic candidates in 2009 than he did in 2007, the last off-year before an election year. In 2007, Reid contributed $197,500 to federal candidates and other political committees. Last year, he gave away $126,000.
Reid has given $95,000 to Senate Democratic candidates but targeted his gifts to challengers such as Rep. Paul Hodes, who is running in New Hampshire, and Rep. Charlie Melancon in Louisiana.
Reid did not give money to incumbents in cushy seats, focusing instead on his own reelection. He showered dozen of local candidates and political organizations in Nevada with money, including $5,000 to the Nevada Assembly Democratic Caucus and $2,500 to the Clark County Democratic Hispanic Caucus.
“While the size and number of contributions to candidates may vary, the goal of the fund has always remained the same: electing individuals who share Sen. Reid’s commitment to creating jobs and turning the economy around,” said Zac Petkanas, Reid’s campaign spokesman.
A Durbin ally said the possibility of replacing Reid is “far more in the mind of Chuck Schumer than anyone else” but acknowledged that Durbin has by no means ignored the possibility.
A Schumer ally, however, argued that the New York lawmaker has always been a prolific Democratic fundraiser.
“Chuck’s level of activity of giving to his colleagues has been pretty consistent and Chuck wants to be the first to help out just generally,” said the source. “It’s part of the reason he led the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC)] for two election cycles.
“Essentially, 14 Senate Democrats owe their seats to him and he wants to continue to protect that majority that he helped to build,” the source added.
Schumer gave $10,000 to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), $10,000 to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), $10,000 to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), $10,000 to Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and $10,000 to Leahy, none of whom is considered endangered. He made these contributions in late 2008 and earmarked them for the 2010 election cycle, according to a filing with the Federal Election Commission.
Durbin gave $10,000 to Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), $10,000 to Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), $5,000 to Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) leadership PAC and $5,000 to Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).
Schumer also gave to Feingold, Dodd and Dorgan.
Both lawmakers also gave to Sen. Al Franken’s (D-Minn.) election recount fund as well as $15,000 to the DSCC.
Reid, Durbin and Schumer filed the year-end fundraising reports for their leadership PACs with the Federal Election Commission last week, making possible a comprehensive comparison of their donations.
McConnell gave contributions to several GOP Senate candidates who are running in primaries against more conservative opponents. He has given $5,000 contributions to Carly Fiorina in California, Trey Grayson in Kentucky and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire since July of last year.
DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund reports on its website that it has contributed, raised, bundled and spent $256,000 in support of conservative candidates running in GOP primaries.
Money that is raised for candidates through fundraisers, the Internet or mail is not reported to the FEC.
Most of DeMint’s PAC support went to Marco Rubio in Florida ($133,000), Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania ($51,000) and Chuck DeVore in California ($23,000), according to the PAC website.
A person familiar with McConnell’s fundraising operation said that the leader’s reported contributions to GOP candidates would have been much greater if it included money raised.
“It would at a minimum be double [the $330,000 reported],” said the source, who noted that McConnell helped DeMint raise $60,000 at an event last year.