Young money

College Republicans show how to play the fund-raising game

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A group made up entirely of college students and recent graduates—the College Republican National Committee—has become one of the most successful youth-oriented fund-raisers in the country, spending more than $10.6 million during the past two years to promote Republican candidates and issues.

Since separating from the Republican National Committee in October 2001 and becoming a Section 527 committee, the CRNC launched an aggressive direct-mail fundraising campaign that relies on thousands of individual donors. The $10 million in spending since mid-2000 puts CRNC in 11th place among the 471 committees the Center for Public Integrity analyzed.

Most of that money was spent on operational expenses: it helped to cover the group's expensive mail fundraising effort, to pay its more than 30 full-time field representatives and to support its at least 1,100 college chapters nationwide. Prominent Republicans credit the CRNC for turning out young supporters in the November 2002 elections that resulted in the GOP's victory in the House and Senate.

"We could not have had such a successful victory if it had not been for all of your efforts," wrote House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois in a July 2003 letter to the organization.

As a 527 committee, the CRNC is an independent actor. Its Democratic counterpart, the College Democrats of America, is the "official college outreach arm of the Democratic Party" and remains tied to the resources of the Democratic National Committee. The CDA claims at least 500 chapters on its official Web site and also conducts voter registration drives.

The CRNC, on the other hand, relies on a broad base of individual donors, most of whom give less than $100. But a smaller circle of generous benefactors, usually older Republicans, have also given tens of thousands to the committee. Four individuals or couples have contributed at least $100,000 each, records show. Indiana retirees O.E. and Mary Pacey of Brookston have contributed the most—$177,964.50.

The group says it spent $700,000 in 2002, to send 33 full-time field representatives—either recent graduates or students taking a semester off—across the nation for 12 weeks to set up new chapters and to strengthen floundering ones.

While the CRNC isn't officially tied to the RNC, the national party has supported it in the past, including a $25,000 donation in 2002. Ryan Call, the group's co-chair until July 2003, said that the RNC may have made the unexpected contribution in recognition of the CRNC's success in the 2002 elections and of the major impact the youth vote can have.

Since it does not accept corporation or PAC money, the CRNC solicits individual donors. The committee's fundraising has reaped $8,445,902.57 since the CRNC's registration with the Internal Revenue Service as a 527 in October 2001. Kris Hart, finance director for seven months between 2002 and 2003, said the average check amount was $28. At the other end of the spectrum, some of the top donors are over 80 years old and appear to have little idea of how their money was being used.

Several major donors contacted by the Center via telephone or through the mail could not recall giving money to the CRNC, though they did know that they'd given money to Republican groups requesting financial support.

Domenic Guerrera of Newport, Rhode Island, who contributed $114,432.34, said that although he expected the Republican groups receiving his money to use it as he intended, "they could have been giving it to the Salvation Army for all I knew."

Hart denied focusing on elderly donors, saying that the CRNC "targets anyone who will give to the Republican Party. If that was college students that would give money, then they would target college students" with their mailings.

Since October 2001, the CRNC has paid more than $7 million to Response Dynamics Inc., a Vienna, Va., firm that provides direct mail and other fundraising services. The Washington Intelligence Bureau, which receives all returned mail, endorses checks and deposits the contributions into the proper accounts, got $295,018.02. Other expenses go toward training recruits and volunteers, organizing chapters and mobilizing volunteers for campaigns and issues. The CRNC also gives block grants to chapter groups, but does not contribute money to PACs or campaigns.

"It costs so much to fund a group solely on direct mail solicitation and small individual donations," Call said. The CRNC has to spend millions on direct mailing just to break even, he added.

Since its inception at the University of Michigan in 1892, the student-run, primarily volunteer CRNC has given manpower aid to the national Republican Party and first breaks to many prominent Republicans, including Karl Rove, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, and Lee Atwater.

The CRNC is expected to play a role in organizing voters for the 2004 presidential election. The committee's biennial convention last July, billed "Working to Win for W" in reference to next year's election, hosted more than 1,000 Republican college students for speeches by Karl Rove, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and others. All stressed the crucial role the College Republicans can play in key states.

Meghan O'Donnell is a student at University of Notre Dame. She interned with the Center's State Projects during summer 2003.

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