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Lawmakers in safe seats raise huge sums
If you believe the polls, plenty of lawmakers are in jeopardy of losing their seats on Election Day. But some of the biggest raisers of campaign cash are the members of Congress whose re-elections are considered a safe bet.
At golf outings, bird-hunting trips and even a Janet Jackson concert, big-money donors have been asked this month to help lawmakers who are in little danger of defeat but who seek to retain their positions in the congressional hierarchy or move up to more powerful slots.
The money is being collected by the lawmakers' re-election campaigns and by separate entities whose name well describes their real purpose - leadership committees. The lawmakers lucky enough to rake in large surpluses then dole out donations to colleagues who, in turn, back their moves up the congressional ladder.
Among this month's notable fundraisers, Republican Rep. J. Gresham Barrett of South Carolina, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had a golf outing planned at the Sage Valley Golf Course in Graniteville, S.C., one of the top-ranked courses in the country. He has raised more than $1 million for his re-election bid, compared with less than $60,000 by his challenger, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
A chance to mingle with Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, was listed as the big draw for donors who were invited to attend a Janet Jackson concert at the Verizon Center in the District last week. Another fundraiser included invitations to Sunday's Washington Redskins game.
"It shows the party goes on, even when these folks don't have to raise a lot of campaign cash," said Nancy Watzman of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which tracks congressional fundraising parties. "The bigger your campaign PAC, the more powerful and formidable you seem."
A spokesman for Mr. Barrett said fundraising is an important way to reach voters. "Campaigns require resources, and this one is no different," Barrett spokesman B.J. Boling said. "Congressman Barrett is committed to communicating his conservative principles and proven track record with voters.
"Complying with FEC reporting requirements is important because it ensures complete transparency for anyone interested in who is contributing to the congressman's campaign," Mr. Boling said.
However, experts say the big fundraising totals make challengers less willing to run against well-heeled incumbent members of Congress.
"They build up big war chests to scare off potential challengers in the future," said Frank Askin, professor of law and a campaign-finance specialist at the Rutgers School of Law in New Jersey.
Through the end of September, Mr. Thompson's political action committee, Secure PAC, had raised nearly a quarter-million dollars in campaign contributions, all but roughly $50,000 from other PACs and campaign committees.
It's not clear how much money the Janet Jackson fundraiser took in last week or whether fundraising organizers went through with the event. But the Sunlight Foundation obtained a copy of the invitation, which requested that donors give $2,500 per ticket to join Mr. Thompson for "an evening concert event with Janet Jackson to benefit his leadership PAC."
Mr. Thompson's office did not respond to e-mail and telephone messages.
Mr. Thompson's separate campaign committee, which raises money for his re-election, has received more than $2 million in donations since last year. The Federal Election Commission had no fundraising reports available as of Monday for Mr. Thompson's challenger, Richard Cook.
The bigger the donations that members give to party committees or favored candidates, the better his or her chances at winning a prestigious committee assignment, said Eric S. Heberlig, associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Mr. Heberlig, who has researched the impact of campaign money and congressional committee assignments, said fundraisers centered on events like golf and concerts likely attract donors. But access to key members of Congress is even more important.
"The more access you offer to lobbyists, the better draw you're going to get at these things," Mr. Heberlig said.
Other events this month include a $1,000-per-ticket pheasant hunt and a fundraiser in South Dakota for Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. And this past weekend, a fundraiser was planned at FedEx Field during the Washington Redskin's home 14-11 win Sunday over the Cleveland Browns. The event, which was not affiliated with the Redskins, was slated to benefit the Help Elect America's Team PAC, the leadership committee of Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, Florida Democrat.
A spokesman for Mr. Meek said the money isn't being used to scare off potential challengers or to win favor with party leaders.
"It's to help elect other Democrats," said spokesman Adam Sharon.
About the Author
Jim McElhatton is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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