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WASHINGTON-The average cost of a run for a seat in the House of Representatives was $73,000 and in the Senate $595,000 – that was in 1976. Last year the average in the House was $1 million, while the top four Senate campaigns spent about $10 million, according to CUNA’s PAC, the Credit Union Legislative Action Council. CULAC is responding to the drastic increases by bringing in more funds, not only from more donors, but also fattening up contributors checks. Just 4% of CULAC receipts from individuals last year were over $200 dollars, CUNA Vice President of Political Affairs Richard Gose said. In a PAC that raised about $3 million last election cycle (2001-2002), that makes for an impressive number of contributors. This election cycle (2003-2004), CUNA Political Director Karen Kincer said, CULAC is targeting just under $3.4 million. In September, CULAC broke $1 million in receipts and while October numbers have not been finalized, it looks to be a lucrative month for the PAC as well, she said. Last election cycle, CULAC made about $2.2 million in contributions. It is looking to increase that this cycle and has handed out $715,000 thus far in the first half. Contributions and receipts typically pick up pace significantly in an election year, particularly when there is a presidential race. All those funds are going to be sought after by the many candidates working hard to keep pace with the skyrocketing costs of running a campaign and without the old soft money some used to rely on from the parties. In the first half of the year, according the Federal Election Commission RECORD, Republicans had raised $139.1 million, a 47% increase, while the Democrats were down around $56.4 million, representing an increase of 39% for them. RECORD also reported that Democrats had received $42.7 million from individuals and $8.1 million from PACs, but Republicans had $129.1 million from individuals and $6.7 million from PACs. Since the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law became effective this year, individual contribution limits were increased from $1,000 to $2,000 but soft money was cut out, according to Jan Baran, attorney with Wiley Rein & Fielding LLP. Baran is representing Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and 70 other plaintiffs in the U.S. Supreme Court challenging parts of the law. The plaintiffs have raised more than 20 constitutional arguments with the McCain-Feingold law. CUNA also has Baran on retainer. “The really big [soft] money was always raised by the Democrats,” Gose commented, so they have been hit particularly hard. Kincer also pointed out that, even though the Democrats have a large number of donors, the Republicans have more people who are willing and able to write a $2,000 check. Additionally, she said, the Republicans have the advantage of being in the majority. Currently, CULAC’s contributions to candidates are split about 42% for Democrats and 58% for Republicans, she said, which is pretty reflective of the Republican majority. She added that CULAC generally has been a pro-incumbent PAC. Baran agreed that Democrats are struggling more financially from the law. He stated that all of the Democratic presidential candidates combined have raised just slightly more than President George W. Bush. PACs More Vital Than Ever The changes in the campaign finance laws have elevated the importance of PACs like CULAC in the candidates’ eyes. Gose highlighted that credit union members are pretty well split into thirds-Republican, Democrat, and Independent-which benefits credit unions. “That’s good for us,” he emphasized. “That makes us a swing constituency. Either party ought to feel that credit unions are in play. They present a good candidate and a good case and support for credit union issues, then they have a very good chance of getting our support.” Kincer followed up, “Candidates are feeling the pressure to raise money. They’re not going to be able to rely upon party committees to come in and spend half-a-million dollars on issue advertising and things that will be supportive for their campaign. It all depends on how you look at it. If you’re feeling like you’re in a really tight race and you’ve always been really thankful for that extra little push that that type of spending by other groups gave you, you’re really paranoid and trying to raise as much money as you can. On the other hand, having it all under the candidate’s control, all that spending, allows you to control your own message,” said Kincer. PACs were largely unaffected by the change in the campaign finance law. “Several favorable comments were made by legislators, including sponsors Senators McCain and Feingold, about PACs and that they were not a problem,” Baran explained. The credit union movement benefits from having such a large trade association like CUNA, Baran said. “Under federal campaign finance laws, these types of organizations can communicate on a variety of different subjects,” he said. Beyond their position, trades can educate voters on how to register, the voting process, and how to get to the polls. Credit unions and their trades can host Get Out The Votes. Gose agreed with the lawmakers on PAC ethics. “PAC money, political action money, is the most regulated in terms of political capital, it’s the cleanest money you can get,” he said. “We report on this monthly; we track it diligently. We are tireless in our efforts to make sure that every dime we bring into the door is raised in a proper manner and reported promptly and correctly. I can’t think of any better way for our political system to operate as to have the PACs themselves police themselves and self-report.I’m always surprised how few instances there are, not just from us but I mean from anyone, in those kind of [intentional] violations. It’s a rarity.” He continued, “Quite frankly some people were frustrated that there weren’t some changes.to increase the limits. Those limits were put in place in 1976, during the establishment of campaign finance reform, the original version. Those dollar amounts have not increased. You can look at how much campaigns have increased from 1976.” So what is CULAC’s strategy for getting more people to shell out bigger bucks for the PAC? “You have to look at how vested they are in the credit union movement and I mean, do you draw a salary from it? Do you draw a living from it? Is the future of the credit union movement and its viability going forward important to your future plans in your career, and if so, I think it’s important to consider how much of a part political involvement and political action plays in that,” Gose said. “I think that our folks need to understand the reality of the political system and what’s going on and how much money it does take,” Kincer added. Making contributions to CULAC is like a civic duty. “You really get to participate in the democratic process. We talk about credit unions being democratically controlled,” Gose said. “Well, I think our local, state, and national governments ought to be democratically controlled and it is as long as we participate.” CULAC’s push for larger checks is not going to be at the expense of the numerous small dollar donations, he said. “That’s our bread and butter.” Receiving so many small dollar contributions “speaks volumes” about the breadth of the credit union movement, Gose commented. Special PAC events are planned for the 2004 Governmental Affairs Conference, including a donors’ reception, a briefing from political analysts, and a special event for high-dollar donors. Also, to plant the political bug in the ears of credit union folks, CULAC has begun publishing its Perspectives magazine, which will run three times in election years and twice in off-years and includes political insights from many Washington insiders. CUNA also plans to hold 15 campaign schools, many in coordination with the state leagues, in the coming election year. In those, CUNA helps typically new candidates with credit union connections write a campaign plan and finance plan, do prep work, direct mailings, identify pertinent groups, target certain voters, Get out the Vote, and learn how to use survey research. CUNA Grassroots Manager Gretchen Graf said that the organization has already started booking dates for Hike the Hills next year. Credit unions made 45 different trips to the nation’s capital in 2003 and she expects as many, if not more, for 2004. As far as the constitutionality of the campaign finance law, Baran and Kincer both said they are hoping for a decision from the Supreme Court by the end of the year, at least so all the primaries are run under the same laws. However, the district court originally handed down a 1,600-page decision that “diced it up in ways that no one had dreamed of. So it’s difficult to say. They could get rid of the whole thing; they could get rid of parts of it,” Kincer said. CULAC is particularly interested in the decision on the coordination rules that say when PACs can run campaign advertising. The current law is unclear and complicated, Gose said, but generally, groups can run advertisements up to 30 days before the primary election and 60 days before a general election. “Any time you have a lack of clarity, you have the potential to make a mistake. That’s our biggest concern. That’s what we’re watching to see how it comes out.You don’t have to agree or disagree with any particular law, but you do have to have clarity in it,” he said. There is no clear list of do’s and don’ts, Gose explained. CUNA has not taken an official position on what it wants the outcome to look like, he added. [email protected]

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