Many Democrats are concerned that a Senate bill considered the best prospect for campaign finance reform in nearly a decade could seriously undermine the party's ability to remain financially competitive, but worry they can do little to stop it, given the party's support for ending huge campaign contributions.
So far, Democratic leaders have maintained their backing for the bill, cosponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.). Behind the scenes, however, party strategists and consultants are urging members of Congress to take a second look at the potential consequences.
The bill would ban what is known as "soft money," or huge donations from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals. Soft money has become increasingly important to the Democrats in recent elections, accounting for almost half the funds raised by the three major Democratic campaign committees.
Without soft money, which helps to finance issue advertising and get-out-the-vote activities, Democrats would be far behind the Republicans in the amount of money raised. Democratic strategists say that soft money was critical to the party's achieving a 50-50 tie in the Senate and picking up two House seats last November.
The difficulty for Democrats is that the party is on record opposing the use of soft money and supporting McCain-Feingold, which would prohibit soft money contributions. In previous years, the legislation has been held up by the threat of a filibuster, but this year backers say they have the votes to cut off debate.
"The problem is, we've painted ourselves into this sanctimonious corner," said one Democratic strategist with close ties to Capitol Hill.
"There always has been, and there is now, a great amount of nervousness about this," said Meredith McGehee of Common Cause. "You go up there and it's kind of palpable with the Democrats, particularly those who are in positions of power in the party apparatus."
McGehee noted that Democrats balked the last time they had the chance to change campaign finance laws. "We saw back in '93 when the Democrats had an opportunity to do something meaningful, they turned away," she said.
Republicans are enjoying seeing Democrats squirming over the impact of campaign finance reform.
"They have had five years of blasting Republicans for being against campaign finance reform," a senior White House official said. "Now they've taken the issue right up to the brink. A good number of them don't know what it does and now that they're starting to find out, they're rightly concerned."
Democrats "are nervous about it," he added. "They realize it's close. They prefer that it not happen. The question is, where is their graceful exit?"
"I think members of both parties should give some serious thought to the law of unintended consequences," said James Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "This bill will have a truly profound effect on the role and functions of the political parties and will thereby profoundly change, perhaps in some negative ways, electoral politics."
The concerns about the impact of ending soft money come in addition to worries among key Democratic constituencies about the bill's effect on their activities. Last week, the AFL-CIO said it supports ending soft money contributions to parties but opposes other sections of the bill that would restrict its ability to run issue advertising close to Election Day.
Under federal law, soft money is not supposed to be used directly on a federal election but rather for general party-building activities. It is a phenomenon that began more than a decade ago and grew exponentially during the 1990s.
During the 1996 presidential campaign, the two major parties used soft money to finance millions of dollars in "issue advertising" that named candidates and was for the most part indistinguishable from ordinary campaign commercials. Since then, the use of soft money has expanded to congressional races, and both parties' House and Senate campaign committees have started raising huge amounts of soft money as well.
More than many Democrats realize, soft money has been essential in remaining financially competitive with the GOP, which has a larger pool of small donors and far outraises Democrats in the smaller donations, known as "hard money."
Such hard money contributions can be used directly on federal elections, but are limited to $1,000 from individuals for candidates (and $20,000 for political parties) and $5,000 from political action committees.
The Democratic and Republican national party committees raised a record $487 million in soft money for the 2000 election, up from $263 million during the last presidential campaign, according to figures compiled by the Federal Election Commission. Democrats were essentially even with Republicans on the soft money chase, bringing in $243 million to the GOP's $244.4 million.
On the congressional front, the Democrats' House and Senate campaign committees outraised their GOP counterparts in soft money donations, with Democrats bringing in $120 million to the GOP's $94 million.
By contrast, Republicans enjoy a huge advantage in "hard money" contributions. Republican Party committees took in $447.4 million in such contributions during the 2000 race, compared with $270 million for the Democrats.
If the bill becomes law, one Democratic strategist said, "We get buried in hard money. There's absolutely no way we can compete on hard money, especially with Bush in the White House."
Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), a House cosponsor of campaign finance reform legislation, said even though the Democratic Party has achieved parity with Republicans in the competition for soft money, Democrats should not lessen their support for eliminating it.
"The fact that both parties might be addicted to this soft money equally makes no difference from a policy rationale," Meehan said. "We have to make soft money illegal."
Democratic strategists say a bill eliminating soft money could have a devastating effect on voter mobilization efforts, an area in which the party has done exceptionally well in recent elections. Others say it tilts the playing field away from the political parties toward political action committees and special-interest constituencies.
Still others say that, by prohibiting party committees from funding issue ads, campaign finance reform will make it more difficult for challengers to defeat incumbents.
"There is no doubt in my mind that without party issue advertising on the Senate, the only three nonincumbents elected would have been [New Jersey Sen. Jon S.] Corzine, [Minnesota Sen. Mark] Dayton and [Washington Sen. Maria] Cantwell," one Democratic strategist said.
All three Democrats largely funded their own campaigns in 2000.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), an implacable foe of campaign finance reform, said the Democrats' concerns were not surprising. "There's no question we're shooting with real bullets this time, and people are forced to actually read the bill for a change and to realize what's at stake here," McConnell said.
McCain said he has detected no diminishment in the interest of Senate Democratic leaders to fight for campaign finance reform.
"I think [Senate Democratic Leader Thomas A.] Daschle is being very honest and straightforward on this," McCain said. But he added, "It will be a tough fight."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company