California Federal Bank CEO Edward G. Harshfield is a longtime Republican donor, but he hasn't given the GOP a cent in '96. Instead, he has ponied up $25,000 for Democrats--and he's asking his Republican business buddies to do the same. "When I bring it up, they say: `Ed, you're stretching your credibility,"' laughs the Los Angeles banker. "Then, generally, they respond."
Harshfield says he's bolting from the GOP for now because he opposes the conservatives' budget-slashing excess and backs President Clinton's economic policies. He's among a legion of well-heeled Republican converts and euphoric Democrats who have helped turn the Democratic National Committee into a money machine.
Although Republicans always have led their counterparts in donations, the Democrats predict they'll close the gap this year. The DNC and the Republican National Committee expect to raise about $120 million each. That's nearly triple the $43 million the Democrats raised last year. In the first three months of '96, the DNC raised $17 million. Then, during April alone, it raised a fat $18 million, vs. the RNC's $10.9 million.
POPULAR GUY. Why the sudden success? Bill Clinton. With polls showing him trouncing GOP rival Bob Dole, the President has become a whiz at shaking the money tree. He has reenergized dispirited Democratic fat cats, wooed disaffected Republicans, and won donors from both parties who like to hedge their bets. So the DNC is raising four times as much money as it had expected last fall, when Clinton was down in the polls. Says Mitchell W. Berger, a Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) attorney who organized a Democratic fund-raiser: "This is America. We like winners."
The Dems hope Clinton isn't the only winner. In 1994, a huge financial advantage helped the GOP capture Congress and sweep most gubernatorial races. This time, the President hopes to ensure a fairer fight by narrowing the edge Republicans get from prodigious business donors. So he's headlining a slew of fund-raisers for the DNC, congressional candidates, and state parties. Clinton doesn't have to worry about his own campaign: He still has $20 million left over from the primaries. Meanwhile, Dole is nearly out of cash, forcing the RNC to help out until federal funds arrive in the fall.
While the President is the star attraction, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice-President Al Gore, and Gore's wife, Tipper, also are raking it in. In February, 3,000 women paid $100 each for a chance to chat up the First and Second Ladies over cocktails in Philadelphia. And last November, Hillary Clinton helped raise $250,000 for New York Democrats at a party attended by financiers Bruce Wasserstein and Ronald O. Perelman, and investor Alan J. Patricof. "I think their presence is very important," says DNC Finance Chairman Marvin S. Rosen.
A healthy economy is another lure. "Business people are feeling good," says Patricof. "People haven't got much to complain about." That apparently includes some GOP execs, uncomfortable with the Republican focus on divisive social issues at the expense of economics. GOPer Malcolm L. Lazin, president of Waterfront Development Corp. in Philadelphia, says he's pleased with Clinton's economic policies. That's why he paid $12,500 to attend an Apr. 26 DNC fund-raiser featuring the President. Lazin also worries about racial overtones in GOP stances on issues such as immigration and welfare. "I'm concerned about the rightward drift of the party," he says.
Democratics concede their good fortune could turn if the race tightens, as experts predict. But for now, party fund-raisers' main worry is keeping up with demand by deep-pocketed donors eager to nibble Brie with the biggest cheese of them all.