Senatorial back-scratching | Arkansas Blog

Senatorial back-scratching

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Paul Barton writes from Washington this morning about how excess campaign finance collections by one senator -- such as Mark Pryor -- can come to the aid of another -- such as Blanche Lincoln.

He reports that Pryor has put almost $1 million into the Democratic campaign account that can go back out to colleagues in need. Lincoln likely will be in need.

By Paul Barton 

WASHINGTON – If Sen. Blanche Lincoln wins re-election this year, it could be partly due to some of fellow Democrat and fellow Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor’s leftover campaign money from 2008.

It’s one of the norms of Congress: members giving unneeded campaign funds to their party committees to enhance their stature and influence.

And Pryor has picked up the habit with a vengeance, giving $875,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee since the spring of 2008. Arkansas Republicans decided not to file against him then, allowing Pryor to coast to re-election.

The DSCC puts such contributions in “a common pool where the party will decide it will do the most good,” Michael Malbin, director of the Campaign Finance Institute, explained in an e-mail to the Arkansas Times. “If she [Lincoln] is still in a close race at the end, a lot of money will be spent there.”

Deidre Murphy, spokesman for the committee, said the committee is well aware of Lincoln’s situation and promises she will “have all the resources she needs.”

And what is the payoff for being generous? Giving is a back-door way of enhancing seniority, said Mary Boyle, lobbyist for Common Cause. Members who give more, for instance, stand a better chance of getting desired committee slots and other party perks, she said, adding, “It’s part of the game.”

Similarly, Georgetown University government professor Stephen Wayne said, “If you give to the party, down the line you pick up the chit.”

In all, Pryor’s contributions to the DSCC this decade have totaled $982,500. Plus, he’s given $179,200 to the Democratic Party of Arkansas, Federal Election Commission records show. Pryor still has close to $2.1 million in cash on hand after raising $5.9 million over the past five years.

Further, his campaign committee gave a $4,000 contribution to Lincoln directly in December 2008.

In comparison, Lincoln, who faced a tougher-than-expected re-election in 2004 and faces even harder odds this year, has given $215,810 to the DSCC this decade and $244,500 to the state party. Lincoln has raised $7.1 million for this year’s re-election campaign.

“A lot of it depends on the situation they're in,” said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance research organization. Incumbent senators who are not up for re-election or don’t have significant opposition, he said, are expected to give more than those who do.

The FEC sets no limits on what a sitting senator can donate to the DSCC. From all members, the DSCC received $3.2 million last year, according to Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper.

Party committees often use the donated funds to affect campaigns through “independent” expenditures, or ones not coordinated with their candidates, Malbin said.

Parties have a First Amendment “right to make unlimited independent expenditures to support their candidates or attack the opponent. In Senate races, 99 percent of it in the last election was spent on attack,” he added.

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the DSCC, said in the Roll Call article: “We don’t look for those in cycle to be givers. We look to the two thirds of our caucus out of cycle to be givers.”

Roll Call further noted that Lincoln’s 2009 giving to the DSCC was only $15,000 – “the bare minimum.” Other embattled senators who limited their giving to that amount last year included Democrats Barbara Boxer of California, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Evan Bayh of Indiana, who this week decided to retire instead will millions unspent.

The two Arkansas senators have given far more than they have received. The DSCC has donated $60,277 to Pryor this decade and $94,100 to Lincoln.

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