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'Soft Money' Restrictions May Aid GOP

A study says Democrats depended more on larger donations in 2002 while Republicans garnered more in small contributions.

June 28, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Republicans raised far more in small donations than Democrats did in the 2002 congressional elections, suggesting that the GOP may enjoy a significant advantage from the new ban on unlimited "soft money" contributions to the political parties, according to a nonpartisan study released Friday.

Soft money contributions typically consisted of large checks from wealthy individuals, unions and corporations. But the campaign finance law President Bush signed last year barred these uncapped contributions. Pending a legal challenge to the law, that means the parties will be more dependent in the 2004 campaign on smaller donations -- which the new study found should favor Republicans.

The study reported that the GOP attracted almost 50% more contributors than the Democrats during the 2002 election, and significantly out-raised the Democrats among every level of donor who gave less than $100,000 to the parties.

"The Republicans have really mastered the art of reaching large numbers of people who can give those [smaller] amounts," said Steven Weiss, communications director of the Center for Responsive Politics, the Washington-based group that conducted the survey.

The exhaustive study, which analyzed 1.4 million contributions to House and Senate candidates, the parties and political action committees in 2002, also determined that the gender gap evident in voting persisted in fund-raising: 54% of the money from men went to Republicans, while 53% of the donations from women went to Democrats.

Overall, the study found that candidates, parties and interest groups spent $2.2 billion on the congressional races in 2002, up significantly from the $1.7 billion spent in 1998, the last nonpresidential election.

Spending is likely to be much higher next year because of the presidential election. About $2.9 billion was spent on the 2000 presidential race.

In the 2002 campaign, Democrats were more dependent than Republicans on soft money. While those donations provided nearly 60% of the Democratic National Committee's budget, the Republican National Committee relied on such large contributions for just 40% of its funding.

That disparity was evident in one of the study's striking findings: Democrats raised as much or more than Republicans in 2002 only among the largest donors. Democrats attracted 92% of the money from the 23 donors who contributed at least $1 million. The split was nearly even among those who contributed between $100,000 and $999,999 -- 50% of these donations went to Democrats, 49% to Republicans.

By contrast, Republicans dominated among small and midsized donations. The GOP garnered 64% of the contributions from those who gave less than $200 and 61% from those who donated between $200 and $999.

Similarly, the Republicans received 55% of the money from those who gave between $1,000 and $9,999, and 53% from those who contributed between $10,000 to $99,999.

"The Republicans have their biggest advantage at the lower level," said Larry Makinson, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics. "Its a reflection of all the years they spent investing in their direct-mail lists and cultivating those donors."

Those advantages help explain why in 2002 the RNC out-raised the DNC by nearly $100 million in hard money -- the donations that, unlike soft money, are subject to legal limits. Parties and candidates can use hard money donations for all political purposes. Soft money donations could be funneled only to the parties and could be spent only for some uses, such as advertising.

The ban on soft money was imposed amid concerns that such contributions allowed big donors to gain undue political influence. Foes of the ban disputed that, and a lawsuit challenging the new campaign finance law is pending before the Supreme Court.

Under the law, donors can now make hard money contributions during each election of up to $2,000 to candidates and $57,500 to the official party committees.

Facing the Republican advantage among givers at those levels (and below), Democrats have mounted a major direct-mail effort to increase their donor base.

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