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How the junior senator from Minnesota came to be Democrats’ No. 1 fundraiser

With nearly $2 million raised during the current cycle, Sen. Al Franken’s fundraising prowess is no joke.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) and Al Franken appeared on stage with Hillary Clinton during a campaign event for the Democratic presidential candidate in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Sen. Al Franken is not coming to a ballot near you anytime soon. Minnesota’s junior senator comfortably won re-election in 2014, and won’t have to defend his U.S. Senate seat again until 2020.

Franken could easily be spending his precious free time kicking back on a canoe in the Boundary Waters. Instead, he’s jetting around the country raising money — not for himself, but for electing fellow Democrats to Congress and the White House this fall.

Like nearly all members of Congress, Franken has a so-called “leadership” political action committee — his is dubbed “Midwest Values PAC” — which is a vehicle to raise cash to support the campaigns of political allies.

Evidently, those Midwestern Values are pretty valuable: Franken’s PAC has proven to be a surprise heavyweight this cycle. Through it, he has raised close to $1.9 million — the third highest total out of the hundreds and hundreds of leadership PACs that exist, placing him ahead of many more powerful members of Congress.

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How did Franken — who ranks 54th in the Senate in seniority — out-raise the top fundraisers in the game?

Long record of strong results

Franken’s success has been in the making for some time: last fall, the senator made a publicity splash by announcing that he would serve as a top fundraiser for national Democrats this cycle.

And, to be sure, Franken has proven an adept fundraiser, both for himself and others, during his time in the Senate and before. He says he’s raised cash for Democrats for over 20 years, and he founded Midwest Values PAC before he even ran for Senate.

But this cycle has been a bonanza for the PAC, blowing away expectations even for this seasoned fundraiser. To date, he has raised $1,868,914 this cycle, and is picking up the pace as election day draws nearer. In the last half of 2015, Franken pulled in roughly $135,000 per month, while he’s raised an average of $205,000 per month in 2016.

Midwest Values PAC has already exceeded all its prior election cycles, surpassing its previous best, its 2012 haul of $1,627,000.

Close observers of campaign finance are surprised. “I wouldn’t have guessed Al Franken would have the number three leadership PAC,” says Joshua Stewart, who tracks money in politics at the DC-based Sunlight Foundation.

The only politicians whose leadership PACs pulled in more than Franken are two of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill: Speaker Paul Ryan, who raised $2.3 million, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who raised $2.6 million.

The list of D.C. power players Franken beat in the money game is long: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Party Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and former Speaker John Boehner are among those who raised less.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who ranks higher in the Senate hierarchy than Franken, has been less active. Her leadership PAC, named Follow the North Star Fund, has raised just over $300,000 for Democrats this cycle.

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Tapping Minnesota and Hollywood for cash

Franken’s success comes from his unique ability to bring together diverse funding sources.

As a sitting senator, he can draw from interest groups like labor unions and corporations; he has substantial connections in entertainment and media from his years as a comedian and Saturday Night Live star; and owing to his stint as a progressive talk radio firebrand and author, he has long-standing ties with liberal grassroots organizations.

That means, Stewart says, Franken may find cash where others can’t. “There are individuals who may not give to a [Steny] Hoyer,” he said, referencing the House’s number two Democrat, “but Al Franken is bridging the worlds of Minnesota, showbiz, and the political donor community. It’s a unique role and there’s a lot of money in all three of those pools.”

According to Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College, Franken’s media ties matter in the party. “Hollywood and New York entertainment elites are a major source of funding for Democrats, and Franken is particularly well-positioned to increase that money flow,” he says.

Indeed, Franken’s donor list looks like no one else’s. Amid the hundreds of thousands of dollars of contributions from ActBlue, a progressive organization that bundles contributions from small donors, are checks from Hollywood bigshots, like directors Judd Apatow and Carl Reiner, liberal power brokers like George Soros, and Minnesota tribes like the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.

In amassing close to $2 million, Franken may have benefited from timing: it is a good moment to be passing the hat in Democratic circles. After a few rough elections that saw the party lose control of both the House and Senate, Democrats are back on the offensive, with a favorable path to retake the Senate.

In a statement, Franken alluded to that: “This year, we have the chance to take back the Minnesota House and only need to pick up four seats to put the U.S. Senate back in Democratic hands… I’m committed to doing whatever I can to help Democrats win.”

According to the senator, more people are giving to his PAC because of its past success. “I think one of the reasons I’ve been successful is that people see the track record of [the PAC], and know that their donations are going to help principled and effective Democratic candidates,” he said.

He credited his supporters with “help[ing] elect some impressive people,” like 1st District Rep. Tim Walz, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

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Sharing the wealth

With a good chunk of change to spare, Franken contributed to a range of candidates — past, present, and potentially future Senate colleagues. Midwest Values PAC has given to nearly every sitting Democratic Senator up for re-election, a slew of challengers, and a handful of Minnesota Democrats in the U.S. House.

Franken gave $10,000 — the maximum a leadership PAC can give to a candidate committee — to his Senate colleagues facing tight re-election battles, like Colorado’s Michael Bennett, along with those virtually guaranteed to win, like Vermont’s Patrick Leahy.

He gave the maximum to Illinois’ Tammy Duckworth, who is likely to unseat incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk; he also maxed out for more longshot candidates, like Missouri’s Jason Kander, who is not favored to beat incumbent Sen. Roy Blunt.

The senator mostly stayed out of contentious Democratic Senate primary contests, but where he did choose to step in is revealing. In California’s open-seat race, he gave $5,000 to Attorney General Kamala Harris, a liberal favorite running against centrist Rep. Loretta Sanchez. In Florida, he gave $10,000 to Rep. Patrick Murphy, choosing him over his opponent, the often controversial progressive Rep. Alan Grayson.

A Midwest value also appears to be helping fellow Minnesotans: the PAC gave $10,000 to 2nd District DFL nominee Angie Craig, Rep. Rick Nolan, and Rep. Keith Ellison. He also gave $5,000 to Klobuchar, who is up for re-election in 2018, and $2,500 to Walz.

In total, Midwest Values distributed $248,000 to candidates and Democratic-aligned committees. Congress wasn’t the only destination: it gave $10,000 to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.

Those contributions aside, the vast majority of the PAC’s expenditures, $1,119,000, went to expenses necessary to bring in that money in the first place. Franken has his loyal donors, but to nab $2 million, he also needed to expand his donor base, which costs a lot of money.

To identify, reach, and pitch potentially like-minded people, Midwest Values PAC contracted with a handful of fundraising consultancy firms. It spent nearly $100,000 for work done by GSI, a California-based firm that solicits donors by phone, over half a million dollars working with three firms to send direct mailers, and $17,000 working with a DC-based firm for online fundraising.

Such high overhead isn’t uncommon for leadership PACs, but Midwest Values’ portion of operating expenditures — nearly 80 percent — is very high among top-performing PACs. Out of the top 10, only one, that of Montana GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke, spent a higher share on operating expenses. With two full fundraising quarters to go before election day, however, the PAC may be investing big now in order to raise even more later.

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What’s in it for Al

For all that cash, Franken gets something intangible, but valuable, in return: clout. When it comes to that, being the party’s top fundraiser in Congress is no small thing.

According to Schier, “Franken has raised his national profile since his reelection… His new fundraising prominence reflects a transformation of his Senate career into a more nationally conspicuous phase.”

In the past few months, Franken has traveled the country stumping and raising money for various candidates. He has traveled to Missouri for Kander, Ohio for former Gov. Ted Strickland, Nevada for former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, and next door to Madison and Milwaukee for his former Senate colleague, Russ Feingold.

Dishing out cash to candidates in need, Sunlight’s Stewart says, is “a great way to make friends in the Senate and in the Congress… That’s how members of both parties seek to increase stature, and to advocate for the issues they care about.”

And, Stewart adds, doing that in a big way is “often a stepping stone to larger roles in the party,” like leading Senate Dems’ campaign efforts. The party typically has a different senator chair the party committee each election cycle.

Franken demurred on the question of taking the DSCC job someday. “I’m very committed to helping Democrats get elected,” he said, “but I’m focused on the job I love: representing the people of Minnesota in the Senate.”