Cautious about hard money

County party organizations shying away from federal activities

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The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 brought about monumental changes in campaign finance practices, forcing political parties at all levels to significantly modify their operations. County parties—which are often closest to the ground during key elections —are having an especially difficult time adjusting, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Federal Election Commission data covering the first 20 months of the 2004 election cycle.

In fact, county parties appear to be shying away from overtly "federal" activities, even in key presidential "swing states" and states with other hotly contested U.S. House and Senate elections. Records show that 82 county party committees in 15 states raised just $3.3 million in "hard money" (the regulated contributions that can fund federal election campaign activities) between January 2003 and August 2004. This pales in comparison to the 100 Democratic and Republican state parties, which raised almost $80 million in hard money over the same time period.

County parties showed a similar caution about Levin funds, a special kind of campaign account created by BCRA that parties can use for get-out-the-vote and voter registration and identification. A Center report earlier this month showed that just two county parties in the entire country reported raising Levin funds between January 2003 and July 2004, and both raised a combined total of only $64,000.

Why the counties' reluctance to use hard money? Some county officials say that complex BCRA rules have made their jobs much more difficult. "We have money, and I'm afraid to spend it," said Conni Brunni, of the Kern County, California, Republican Party. "The rules don't always reconcile with our distinct state law, and it has made it very difficult for me in my attempts to comply."

John Munger, the chairman of the Pima County, Arizona, Republican Party, agrees that compliance has been especially difficult this election cycle. "There are so many things that are unclear in this law that we have restricted ourselves from doing certain things because we're not sure whether we can do them or not," he told the Center.

Under BCRA, even activities that appear to be wholly local in scope or substance can fall within the definition of "federal election activities." This has proved especially vexing for county parties, which are usually very small, volunteer-run operations that are ill-equipped to navigate the murky waters of BCRA. Both Brunni and Munger say their parties must constantly seek legal and other expert advice and guidance.

As a result, county parties in general are acting more cautiously this election cycle, which has hindered their effectiveness. "Unless we are just absolutely convinced that something is so clearly legal that there's absolutely no question about it, we don't do it," Munger told the Center.

The California Republican Party was by far the biggest source of hard money, transferring more than $338,000 to the county Republican parties. Overall, California county parties—Democratic, Republican and Green—raised 55 percent of the national total, roughly $1.8 million, but California Republicans raised more than ten times as much as the Democrats and Greens combined.

Nationally, Republican county parties raised more than three-quarters of the total. In fact, of the ten county parties raising the most in hard money, only one was Democratic: the ninth-ranked Democratic Party of Dallas County, Texas, site of a hotly contested congressional race between Congressmen Martin Frost and Pete Sessions, raised slightly under $90,000. Even there, however, Republicans exceeded their Democratic counterparts by almost seventy percent, raising more than $151,000 in hard money.

Texas, which came in a distant second to California with $432,479 in hard money, bucked the national trend. Democratic county parties in the Lone Star State raised 57 percent of the state total.

Individual donors contributed more than $2.6 million, or almost 80 percent, of the national total. Nine individuals made at least one contribution for the maximum amount of $10,000. Six of these donors have collectively contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates and organizations over the last several election cycles.

Federal candidates and officeholders were another lucrative source of hard money. Campaign committees affiliated with U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.), for example, contributed $105,000 to three county party committees in Pennsylvania in April and May of 2004. Nonetheless, county parties in Pennsylvania raised less than seven percent as much hard money as their counterparts in California.

County parties in three other states key to the presidential race—Ohio, Arizona and Michigan—raised a combined total of less than $600,000, of which only $36,500 was raised by Democrats. County parties in another crucial presidential state, Iowa, raised only $250 in hard money.

Under BCRA, state or county parties engaging in what the law broadly terms "federal election activities" must maintain at least one of two kinds of campaign accounts, depending on the activity.

If the party wants to run broadcast or print ads that support or attack a U.S. House, Senate or presidential candidate or pay employees who spend more than one-fourth of their compensated time on federal election activities, they must use funds drawn from a federal account.

If the party wishes to register voters within 120 days of a federal election or conduct voter identification, generic party promotion or get-out-the-vote efforts in connection with an election in which a federal candidate appears on the ballot—the main activities of most county party organizations —they must use either hard money or Levin funds.

County parties cannot accept hard money donations from corporations or labor unions. Although BCRA doubled the contribution limit to $10,000 per person per year, a special biennial limit restricts the amount an individual can contribute to all state and county parties combined to no more than $37,500. However, BCRA presumes that state and county parties are "affiliated," which means that contributions received and made by county parties count against the state party's limits and vice-versa.

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