Republican Priebus Winning Back Big-Dollar Donors to Erase Debt

Big donors have re-opened their checkbooks for the Republican National Committee, a sign that under new leadership the group is digging out of financial troubles.

The RNC collected $2.5 million in checks of $20,000 or more during this year’s first three months, according to the Federal Election Commission. That’s more than half of the $4.4 million the party raised in large amounts during 2009 and 2010 combined.

The surge in such donations comes as RNC Chairman Reince Priebus’s campaign has sought to woo back major contributors who abandoned the national committee when it was led by Michael Steele, the former Maryland lieutenant governor whose free-spending habits and penchant for making unpredictable comments on television irked party insiders.

“You’ve got an active fundraising group back who has confidence in the Republican National Committee,” said former finance co-chairman Mel Sembler, a shopping-center developer in St. Petersburg, Florida. “Many of our major donors seemed to have lost confidence in what was happening at the national party. Fundraising just didn’t happen. It is happening now.”

Priebus, who defeated Steele in the chairmanship race in January, said he spends about five hours a day on the telephone urging big donors to return to the fold. Earlier this month, about 50 major Republican donors gathered at a Washington hotel to hear about the party’s 2012 campaign strategy and how their contributions would be put to work.

Like a Candidate

Al Hoffman Jr., a real estate developer based in North Palm Beach, Florida, and a former RNC finance chairman, likened Priebus’s efforts to a candidate seeking donations.

“Donors want to feel like their opinions matter and they have the opportunity to express their opinions,” Hoffman said. “That’s why candidates have to call these donors. They’ve got to talk to them.”

The next measure of Priebus’s progress comes July 20, when the RNC and the other party committees submit monthly financial disclosure reports to the FEC. Priebus, who inherited a debt of more than $24 million, pared it down to $18.5 million as of May 31. Debts to vendors dropped to $3.4 million from $9.2 million.

Priebus also has worked to cut expenses. The RNC reported spending $25.1 million in the first five months of 2011, down from $30.5 million during the same period two years earlier.

Five-Month Figures

Between Jan. 1 and May 31, the RNC raised $30.5 million and had $6.1 million in the bank, behind the Democratic National Committee’s $45.5 million in receipts and $16.5 million cash on hand, FEC reports show.

Priebus, the former chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, assumed his new post after the DNC and the Democratic Senate and House campaign committees outraised their Republican counterparts in the 2010 election cycle for the first time since the FEC began tracking party money in the late 1970s.

Improvements in the RNC’s finances would aid the Republican nominee in the 2012 contest against President Barack Obama. While Republican-leaning groups such as American Crossroads, which former President George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove helped establish, plan on spending millions to promote the party, only the RNC “can legally coordinate our efforts with a presidential campaign,” Priebus said.

A revived RNC also would play a lead role in next year’s congressional elections, given that the group traditionally has financed the Republican get-out-the-vote programs. Such efforts by the committee were reduced in the 2010 vote.

Helping Priebus focus on fundraising are RNC Finance Director Angela Meyers, who served in the same post at the Republican Governors Association, and Ron Weiser, the committee’s national finance chairman and former head of the Michigan Republican Party.

In addition, former RNC Chairman and White House aide Ed Gillespie, who helped form the independent Crossroads groups that raised $71 million to help elect Republicans in 2010, agreed to lead Priebus’s transition.

“It was a clear signal that the RNC was back,” Priebus said. “What we were asking for is for people to invest in this team and know there is a plan to succeed.”

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