- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

The era of McCain-Feingold campaign-finance regulation has dawned, banishing from the Republican Party's three-day annual winter meeting the receptions and dinners provided by corporate sponsors that used to enliven the annual event.
Republican leaders noticed the difference last week when they met at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington to strategize and pump themselves up for the coming elections.
"It was brutal. I mean, we had a rules committee meeting this morning and they didn't even have Diet Cokes in there," Ohio Republican Chairman Bob Bennett said with a smile.
"There was always a reception and usually one or two dinners," David Norcross, a member of the Republican National Committee from New Jersey, said. "Now you bring your own coffee to the meetings."
Meetings of the Republican National Committee had been financed with "soft" federally unregulated contributions to the national party.
But new restrictions that Congress passed last year put an end to soft money. So both the Republican and Democratic parties are trimming expenses while hoarding federally limited "hard" contributions for the most essential campaign functions.
Meanwhile, a broad coalition of opponents including the California Democratic Party, the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union is asking the Supreme Court to declare much of the campaign-finance law unconstitutional. But any decision would be too late to affect the 2004 campaign season.
Mr. Bennett and Mr. Norcross say the new law's more serious impact is on restricting campaign advertising by outside interest groups in the crucial days before elections, even while the funding restrictions boost the importance of outside interest groups in campaigns by reducing the role national parties play.
"The stark reality of campaign-finance reform for members was at a meeting like this, where suddenly there is no coffee in any subcommittee meetings, no receptions, no dinners," said Mr. Norcross, adding, "So now we're a lean, mean political machine."
But the "stark reality" for the RNC's staff came a month or so ago, when about a third of them, including some valued senior personnel, lost their jobs as the committee was forced to trim its budget because of the McCain-Feingold contribution restrictions.
At the three-day RNC winter meeting that ended Saturday, Republican National Chairman Marc Racicot unanimously re-elected for another two-year term gave Mr. Norcross the plum assignment. He will serve as the RNC Arrangements Committee chairman, meaning he will oversee the planning and execution of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City.
McCain-Feingold's restrictions on campaign contributions do not apply to either the Republican or the Democratic national convention.
In what has become something of a requisite for success in Republican politics in Washington, Mr. Norcross, a former RNC general counsel and vehement opponent of campaign-finance regulation, has established a close working relationship with White House chief political strategist Karl Rove.
Mr. Bush signed the McCain-Feingold bill in part because Mr. Rove, although not exactly a proponent of the measure, saw in its passage advantages for Mr. Bush's coming re-election battle.
Mr. Bush broke hard-money fund-raising records in his 2000 campaign. The new rules double federal hard-money contribution limits and thus enable Mr. Bush to outraise and outspend his Democratic opposition by an even larger factor.
It also gives him the option of not accepting federal financing in the general election, thus not being bound by federal finance rules and limitations.
But the reform's impact on state parties is a different matter. Each state is now responsible for covering the cost of its own employees, "so we are no longer permitted to have sponsors," Mr. Bennett explained. "I think we are going to have to form a national state chairmen's association to counteract what McCain-Feingold has done to the state parties."
He said that state parties have the job of electing such positions as governors, county commissioners and township councils.

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