Texas Gov. George W. Bush is launching an ambitious new effort to raise cash for state parties from big givers who have already contributed the $1,000 maximum to his presidential campaign.
Bush, whose campaign has a record $37 million in the bank, will tap his enormous donor network to raise money for about 20 different state parties, including electorally significant states like California, Michigan and New York. The fund-raising will help pay for efforts to get voters to the polls to cast ballots for the GOP presidential nominee and other Republican candidates on Election Day next year.
The plan to transform the Bush money machine into a new source of money for the Republican Party is a vivid example of his campaign's confidence three months before a single vote has been cast. While Bush's GOP rivals are focusing on raising enough money to stay competitive in the primaries, the Bush team is already turning its fund-raising attention to the general election.
"It's never been done before," said Bush campaign lawyer Benjamin L. Ginsberg, who called the new operation a "share the wealth" program. "We can do it this time because the governor has this incredible donor base, many of whom have not really given to politics in a big way before."
The "1999 State Victory Fund Committee"--a joint fund-raising operation of the Bush campaign and about 20 state parties--will allow the campaign to take maximum advantage of the byzantine federal election rules. While donors to Bush are limited to $1,000 checks, in theory they could give as much as $25,000 to the State Victory Fund Committee, which would then be parceled out to various state parties to use for their voter turnout programs.
Donors can give a maximum of $25,000 per calendar year to federal election efforts. But because donations to candidates are counted in the year in which they stand for election, Bush's $1,000 donors--if they have not made other political contributions--still have $25,000 they are free to give in 1999.
"All presidential candidates have done fund-raising for state parties before. What's unique about this is being able to tap into '99 dollars," Ginsberg said. The state fund-raising effort lets the Bush campaign get a jump on general election party fund-raising and solicit donors during a relatively slow period, before they are besieged by other money requests for the election campaign.
It also helps provide the states with scarce "hard money," contributions that can be raised in maximum checks of $5,000 to each state party. Under federal election law, state party get-out-the-vote efforts must be paid for in part with hard money, and state parties can find themselves without enough hard money to finance their efforts.
"It's a great idea," said one Democratic strategist. "If I thought it would work, I'd suggest Gore should start doing it right now."
The new fund-raising plan was first reported on the Web site of Fortune magazine.
Election law experts called the idea a legal novelty designed to take advantage of Bush's unprecedented fund-raising prowess.
"It certainly will help Bush if he's the nominee," said Kenneth A. Gross, who served as the campaign lawyer for Republican Robert J. Dole's 1996 campaign. "It's unusual--a new twist. You don't usually see primary candidates doing state fund-raising this early in the process. He does have opposition in the Republican primaries."
The Bush campaign has started putting the word out about the new program to some of its "Pioneers," the collection of more than 100 wealthy individuals who have raised more than $100,000 each for the Texan.
"It's like I'm a short-order cook," said one Pioneer who was told of the plan this week. "I'm in the kitchen and I know an order like that is coming. I'll raise it however they tell me to."
Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said Bush "wants to help build strong party organizations across the country. It's strategic for the party as a whole, no matter who our nominee is." She said other participating state parties include those in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Greg Brock, executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, said he thought the Bush effort to tap into its donor base to raise funds for state parties would help bring in more money for voter turnout efforts. He noted that four years ago, the Dole campaign discovered belatedly that not enough money had been allocated to such programs.
"They want to make sure those things are fully funded as early as possible," Brock said. "It was emphasized to us that these funds would be available to us whether or not Bush ends up as the nominee. So we'd be open to this sort of agreement with any candidate."
"This is Republicans helping Republicans," said Dan Allen, communications director for the New York GOP, "and we appreciate the help." However, a spokesman for the California Republican Party said he knew nothing about any joint fund-raising committee, adding, "We still have a primary to go through."
Staff writer Ruth Marcus contributed to this report.