- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Looking to break out of the pack of Republicans vying to unseat Rep. Bart Stupak in this year’s election, Daniel J. “Dan” Benishek set a fundraising goal of $219,000 this month — $1,000 for every vote House Democrats cast for the health care bill.

Mr. Benishek is making headway toward that goal thanks mainly to Mr. Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who held out for stiffer pro-life language but ultimately voted for the health care bill after cutting a deal with President Obama.

The health care fight may be over in Congress, but it is still raging among fundraisers.

Republican candidates across the country have turned their appeals away from stopping the bill and now argue that they need money to win office and repeal it. Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is in a primary battle, sent out two e-mails to his list last week simply titled “Repeal the bill.”

Meanwhile, Democrats have used reports of threats against lawmakers who voted for the bill to ask donors for money to fight attacks and misinformation.

“Everybody who knows anything knows repeal doesn’t have a chance in hell, but it might be a great way to raise money,” said Jim Spencer, president of the Campaign Network, a leading Democratic fundraising mail outfit. “That’s the pattern I’ve seen on the Republican appeals. They know people in their base are angry and they want to fill their coffers now.”

As for the Democrats, Mr. Spencer said, now that they have a finished bill they can defend against attacks, and that means they can ask for money to back up that defense.

“They’re saying, ‘I’m in for a big fight and they’re saying all these things that aren’t true, and I’ve got to be able to have your money so I can get the facts out,’” he said.

With the end of the first fundraising quarter of this year looming on Wednesday, candidates and political party committees are counting on the divisive issue to help boost their numbers in last-minute appeals. Saul Anuzis, a former state Republican Party chairman in Michigan who announced Mr. Benishek’s $219,000 appeal under the headline “Payback for Stupak’s betrayal,” said he’s talked with plenty of fundraisers and that health care has been working as a pitch for cash.

“Everybody who’s been involved in taking advantage of this vote has seen a bump in their online fundraising,” he said.

Mr. Anuzis said Mr. Benishek had raised nearly $100,000 in less than 72 hours and, just as valuable, gained exposure that helps solidify him as the top Republican in the crowded primary field.

“Without that vote, he would have been an obscure challenger running against a long-term incumbent. With this vote, he has become a nationally watched candidate by the [National Republican Congressional] Committee and pro-life activists all over the country,” Mr. Anuzis said.

Mr. Stupak for months led opposition to the Senate health care bill, arguing that it allowed taxpayer money to fund abortions. But after Mr. Obama signed an executive order reasserting existing federal laws, which bar the use of federal dollars on the procedure, Mr. Stupak reversed course and said he would support the Senate bill.

Pro-life groups said the move didn’t change the bill’s language. They say the bill leaves loopholes to fund abortion and have vowed to fight it in the courts.

Mr. Stupak’s campaign didn’t return a message seeking comment on his own fundraising since the vote.

Democratic political committees have been using Republicans’ vehemence to stir liberal supporters to contribute as a sort of defense fund.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has been particularly prolific, issuing appeals with headlines such as “Slander,” “Tyranny” and “Crazy Talk” — all aimed at Republican rhetoric.

Final fundraising figures for the past week will have to wait until later in April, when candidates and committees file their reports with the Federal Election Commission, but health care appears to have been a bonanza for both sides.

Pat Toomey, a former Republican congressman who is seeking to unseat Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Democrat, had a 500 percent increase in online fundraising, a spokeswoman said.

Rand Paul, who is running to be the Republican nominee for Kentucky’s open Senate seat, raised $261,880 from a March 23 health care appeal, while the Republican National Committee’s “Fire Nancy Pelosi” fundraising appeal raised more than $1.5 million since it was launched on March 22.

The Democratic National Committee lacked that type of gimmick but said it did just fine from its enthused supporters, collecting $2 million in the first 36 hours after the House passed the bill on March 21.

In Arkansas, meanwhile, health care is a dividing line in the Democratic primary. Sen. Blanche Lincoln opposed a government-run public option in health care, ended up voting for the Senate bill last year but voted against a package of fixes that passed last week.

Her opponent in the primary, Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, supports a public option. After Mrs. Lincoln’s vote against the fixes, he sent out a fundraising appeal based on health care. His campaign said that e-mail helped with its solid fundraising last week.

Mr. Spencer said the Internet has proved to be a powerful force in fundraising because it has allowed small-dollar donors to spread their impact among a host of candidates who will fight for their positions.

He said that’s part of what powered Republican Scott Brown to a surprise Senate victory in Massachusetts earlier this year: Donors nationwide, who for years had been treated to direct mail appeals for money to fight Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, now had a chance to put a Republican in Mr. Kennedy’s seat, and they flooded Mr. Brown’s campaign treasury.

Running on a message of stopping health care, Mr. Brown outpaced his Democratic opponent in late-campaign spending by a margin of 3-to-1, Mr. Spencer said.

How long health care remains a viable fundraiser depends on the political landscape. An immigration fight could shift fundraising opportunities elsewhere, for example.

But for now, health care remains powerful, particularly in races where House Democrats switched from “no” to “yes” on the bill, Mr. Anuzis said.

Republican Jim Renacci, who is seeking to run against Rep. John Boccieri, Ohio Democrat, raised $40,000 on the day Mr. Boccieri said he would vote for the health care bill, according to Renacci spokesman James Slepian.

“The people across America are fighting back now,” Mr. Slepian said.

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