A Record Year For Bigtime Donors
By John Helyar

(FORTUNE Magazine) – As this issue went to press, President Bush was hosting 455 elite fundraisers at ritzy Reynolds Plantation, a Georgia resort, to celebrate the $170 million that's been raised for his campaign. That's already 70% more than his record-setting war chest of 2000. John Kerry's campaign director was bragging about raising $50 million in the first quarter of 2004. "That's a new record for a nonincumbent presidential candidate," said Mary Beth Cahill. Indeed, it's 73% higher than the $29 million George W. Bush raised in one quarter of 1999.

This is the era of campaign finance reform that the passage of the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002 was supposed to usher in? Among other things, the law sharply limited the use of "soft money": the gobs of cash that corporations and fat cats bestowed on the parties to curry favor. Yet McCain-Feingold has hardly reduced the torrent of influence-seeking cash--it's just redirected it. Herewith, the new landscape.

Mercer Reynolds III, Bush's campaign finance chief, may be a patrician southerner (his family developed Reynolds Plantation), but he presides over the greatest pyramid scheme this side of Amway. At its peak are captains of industry who vigorously solicit contributions, and the system's aggression and precision are unprecedented. Each solicitor is assigned a numerical code, noted on the proffered checks. In 2000 the 242 people who accounted for $100,000 in contributions were called "Pioneers" and became eligible for swell premiums. Mercer Reynolds chose the ambassadorship to Switzerland.

He resigned last year to fundraise, and thanks to McCain-Feingold the cap on individuals' contributions is now $2,000, up from $1,000 (the law benefits Republicans by putting a premium on raising "hard" money, which the Republicans excel at). To top the Bush pyramid now, a bundler must raise $200,000, at which point he becomes a "Ranger." There are 187 of them, along with 268 of the $100,000 Pioneers.

At the Bush camp it's also "Goodbye 'Kenny Boy' Lay; hello Stanley O'Neal!" To fully appreciate the campaign's takeover of Wall Street, behold the CEO of Merrill Lynch. O'Neal isn't even a registered Republican, yet he's a Bush Ranger. He invited 200 Merrill executives to a $2,000-a-plate Bush gala last June. Other first-time Rangers include CSFB's John Mack, Morgan Stanley's Phil Purcell, and UBS executive Joseph Grano.

The Street's strong GOP tilt may seem obvious, considering who the Democratic front-runner used to be. How hard is it to choose between George (eliminator of the dividend tax) Bush and Howard (traitor to his class) Dean? Adds one Democratic fundraiser: "Some [bankers] tell me privately they're scared and they have to play ball."

Kerry may rail at Bush's economic policies (see "Borrowing From Bubba"), but he's trying to mimic his fundraising strategy. Kerry finance chief Lou Susman, a Citigroup Global Markets executive, has built a bundling network that now numbers 182 rainmakers. Those who raise at least $100,000 are called "Vice chairs," and at least $50,000, "Co-chairs." But this is still a pyramid in process, having generated only around $12 million to date.

The Democrats have been trying to respond to the new McCain-Feingold rules by other means, as seen by the reincarnation of Harold Ickes. With the closing of the Democratic National Committee's old soft-money spigot, a group of liberal organizations have coalesced to operate as a sort of "shadow party." They're technically called 527 committees (after the IRS provision governing them). They're run by veteran Democratic operatives like Ickes, a former Clinton aide and fundraiser, and they're allowed to do what Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe no longer can: hit up fat cats for soft money. Uber-investor George Soros has contributed $5 million to a get-out-the-Democratic-vote outfit called America Coming Together, while Progressive Insurance chairman Peter Lewis has chipped in $3 million, and RealNetworks' Rob Glaser $745,000.

So far, the "shadow party" hasn't been nearly as prolific at raising soft money as the real one was. Contributing to a get-out-the-Democratic-vote outfit doesn't gain donors access to or influence with candidates. But Harold Ickes's Media Fund did buy $5 million worth of anti-Bush TV ads in "battleground" states, at a time when Kerry's coffers had been depleted by the primaries. This also served to make the Bush campaign mad as hell. It's filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging that the lefty 527s are an illegal "soft money slush fund." (Responds a spokesman for America Coming Together and the Media Fund: "This is nonsense and political maneuvering.")

But the Democrats also have at their disposal tech wonks like Josh Ross. Kerry's "director of Internet strategy" reaped $26 million in Internet contributions in the first quarter, helping cut into Bush's huge fundraising lead. The donations come in small increments (averaging $109) but in big numbers (245,000). "The fantastic thing is that these are low-cost, high-margin contributions," says Ross. Now if Kerry could just get Howard Dean to share his e-mail list. --John Helyar