Election Fallout: Bickering Over Leftover Kerry Cash

John Kerry and an audience member at the dedication of the Bill Clinton presidential library

hide captionSen. John Kerry, right, and an audience member at the dedication of the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Nov. 18, 2004.

Reuters

A Washington wise man I know offers five axioms of a good campaign. The one that came to mind today was this: It's what gets over the wall that counts.

This past week, Democratic campaign professionals spent a lot of time castigating Sen. John Kerry — not for losing the presidential race, but for failing to spend all his money.

Kerry committed a cardinal sin of politics. He finished with money in the bank. As much as $15 million of Kerry's never got "over the wall." It didn't count.

Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's 2000 race, was one of the most outspoken critics. She told The Associated Press that Democrats want to know why Kerry "sat on so much money" when it could have been used to help Democrats in down-ballot races for governor, Senate and House.

It's a bizarre situation, especially for the perennially cash-strapped Democrats. But as usual, it's not as simple as it looks at first glance.

Let's start with one astonishing fact. When Kerry finished the primary campaign last July, he had more money left over than Al Gore ever raised in the 2000 campaign. The amount was $48.9 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Almost all of that cash rolled in after Kerry had clinched the nomination in March. Through most of the spring and summer, Kerry outraised President Bush, the reigning champion of American political fundraising, by 2-to-1. But that's another story.

The law limits what Kerry could do with that money. He was going to take public financing for the general election campaign in the fall, so he couldn't just push that $48.9 million over into post-convention spending. He could, however, transfer dollars to his campaign's general-election legal and compliance fund — of which more in a minute — or transfer it to national and state Democratic committees.

Which is what he did. Big time.

West Virginia Democrats got $100,000 from Kerry and spent it registering voters. Minnesota got $196,000. The battleground states of Florida and Pennsylvania got $500,000 each. Kerry's campaign also steered cash into less likely states. Some $200,000 went to Montana, among the reddest of red states in the presidential campaign, where Democrats nonetheless succeeded in capturing the governorship and a chamber of the legislature. Another $300,000 went to Indiana, where the party was struggling to hang on to the governorship (which was won by a Republican).

The campaign gave $3 million apiece to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — the biggest contributions either has ever landed.

And now to get back to that general election legal and compliance fund — or what Washington wonks call the GELAC. Kerry's campaign directed a steady stream of money to its GELAC, which is a separate account presidential campaigns maintain to handle the money, file the disclosure reports, and otherwise comply with Federal Election Commission requirements.

All of these transfers totaled a bit less than $11 million through Oct. 13. Reports for the final 19-day sprint have yet to be filed. When they are, they'll show Kerry also gave the Democratic National Committee an astonishing $32.5 million.

Yet with all these transfers, the Kerry campaign ended the season with that big pile of cash.

One reason is that Democrats approached Election Day fully anticipating recounts and expensive post-election litigation. They remember that in the 2000 Florida recount, Gore spent about $3.5 million, the Bush campaign nearly $14 million. As one party operative says, "The lesson of 2000 was: Be Prepared."

Kerry's GELAC fund, a potential source of money to pay for recounts, had less than $7 million in mid-October. So this fall, not only was Kerry apparently stockpiling cash, but the Democratic National Committee took out a $5 million loan — even though it wasn't in debt. The loan money was earmarked for potential recount battles in Florida and Ohio.

The obvious question: Would more money spent in October have put Kerry over the top (and obviated any recounts) in November? To make that work legally, Kerry would have had to funnel the money from his primary campaign committee to the DNC.

And in the most likely state, Ohio, the answer is, probably not. The airwaves were already saturated with political ads. And Democratic strategist Harold Ickes said a few days ago that America Coming Together, the independent group that spearheaded voter turnout efforts in battleground states, hit all its goals in Ohio.

Florida is another matter. Democratic turnout could have been higher. Kerry trailed President Bush by a wider margin than in Ohio, but it's possible that putting more bucks on the ground might have made a difference.

If you were a Democratic strategist, which would be easier: Parsing the subjective issues of Kerry's response to the Swift Boat ads and the party's handling of "values voters," or arguing about cold, hard cash?

The Democrats have a lot of anger right now. They need targets for it. This time, in what might be a first for the party, they can be angry about having a surplus of cash.

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