Bundles of Influence

The Bush campaign's Pioneers and Rangers are raising millions to re-elect the president. What do they expect in return?

The Bush campaign's Pioneers and Rangers are raising millions to re-elect the president. What do they expect in return?

On January 8, 2004, Mark Guzzetta, a prominent Florida developer, helped host a fundraiser for the Bush campaign. In the four hours that Air Force One was on the tarmac in Palm Beach, the cocktail party added more than $1.5 million to the president's re-election coffers; several hundred supporters paid $2,000 each to attend. If any weren't clear why they were there, Guzzetta offered a stark reminder. "Protect your investment," he said.

Not all of President Bush's financial supporters are as blunt as Guzzetta. But his words underscore why many of the nation's most powerful executives and influential lobbyists are raising money for the president: The Bush administration has looked out for its friends. And right now, some of its most important friends are "bundlers" like Guzzetta -- fundraisers who can pull together unprecedented numbers of large individual donations for Bush's campaign, which is setting out to raise more money than any in U.S. history.

Bundling has long been part of the political fundraiser's arsenal; in 2000, the Bush campaign encouraged supporters to bundle checks, and designated those who could raise $100,000 or more as "Pioneers." But in the wake of the 2002 McCain-Feingold -- which outlawed unlimited "soft money" contributions -- the campaign now is going far beyond that, turning bundlers into a sophisticated, corporate-style sales force that serves as the backbone of the Bush money machine. By early March, a total of 268 fundraisers had earned Pioneer status, and an additional 187 had become "Rangers" by raising $200,000 each; together, they had collected more than $60 million, more than one-third of the campaign's record-breaking $170 million war chest. The Kerry campaign is also relying on bundlers; as of March 19 it had 60 "vice chairs" who had raised $100,000 each, and 122 "co-chairs" at $50,000 each.) In return for their efforts, Bush bundlers get perks such as exclusive meetings with the president, Vice President Cheney, and Bush strategist Karl Rove. Some of them may also have their eyes on an appointment in a second Bush administration; according to a report by the group Texans for Public Justice, of Bush's 241 Pioneers in 2000, 90 were appointed to federal posts including 21 ambassadorships and four Cabinet positions.

But most of all, the Rangers and Pioneers are working to re-elect an administration that has proved sympathetic to their agenda. Among them are executives from major energy companies that have successfully pushed for looser pollution standards, from pharmaceutical manufacturers that have counted on the administration to block efforts to lower drug prices, and from Wall Street firms that expect Bush to continue cutting taxes on the wealthy and to move toward privatizing Social Security. And remarkably, despite the McCain-Feingold law's goal of reducing the influence of wealthy "superdonors," many of Bush's top fundraisers are the same people who have historically dominated the campaign finance system: A Mother Jones analysis of campaign data has found that of the top 10 Republican donors from the pre-McCain-Feingold era, six are now Bush Rangers or Pioneers.

"You're dealing with a small circle of people who can give this kind of money or raise this kind of money," notes Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics and a former general counsel to the Federal Election Commission. "They see this basically as a business investment."

Consider Ranger Henry "Hank" McKinnell, the CEO of pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. McKinnell has lobbied aggressively against efforts to force U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturers to lower prices; in recent years, he has been an outspoken opponent of a Japanese policy that required companies to reduce the price of any drug two years after introducing it. In 2003, the Bush administration named a top Pfizer official, Karen Katen, to a U.S.-Japan trade commission, which soon issued a report chastising Japan for policies "that penalize successful medical innovations," such as the pricing policy. Within less than a year, the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare agreed to revise the regulation. Pfizer and other pharmaceutical manufacturers also benefited when the administration moved to stop Americans from importing drugs from Canada, and when the White House defeated congressional efforts to include drug-price controls in last fall's Medicare bill. At least a dozen other health-industry executives have made it onto Bush's elite fundraiser list, including Munr Kazmir, CEO of direct-mail pharmacy Direct-Meds Inc., and William McGuire, CEO of UnitedHealth Group, whose company expects its revenue to grow by as much as $445 million as a result of the Medicare legislation.

Energy-industry executives have long been among Bush's key supporters -- and after having much of their political wish list fulfilled in the past four years, more than 20 of them have signed up to raise money for the president. Thomas R. Kuhn, president of the trade group Edison Electric Institute, first became a Pioneer in 1999, urging donors to include his campaign-issued tracking number on their checks so that "our industry is credited." Last year Kuhn signed up as a Pioneer again, earning an invitation to an August barbecue at Bush's Crawford ranch. But Kuhn and other energy executives had already received far more crucial access. In 2001, representatives from Kuhn's Edison Institute had at least 14 discussions with members of Cheney's energy task force, pushing for looser air-pollution rules. The task force also met with representatives of two power companies that the Environmental Protection Agency was investigating for clean-air violations: FirstEnergy -- based in Akron, Ohio -- whose CEO, Anthony J. Alexander, is a Pioneer, and the Atlanta-based Southern Company, which has four Pioneers and Rangers among its top officials and lobbyists.

Over the past two years, the administration has rewritten the clean-air rules in almost exactly the ways industry representatives suggested, often using language from corporate memos verbatim. FirstEnergy and Southern alone are likely to save hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties because of the changes. While the new rules were being crafted, individuals associated with Southern gave so much money to the Bush campaign -- a total of $180,000, up from $24,000 in 2000 -- that the company now ranks among the campaign's top 15 benefactors.

Also on Bush's list of Rangers and Pioneers are dozens of K Street's most powerful lobbyists -- people like Bill Paxon, a former Republican congressman whose firm represents several major energy and health care companies as well as Bechtel, which has garnered nearly $3 billion in contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq. In addition to raising funds, lobbyists backing Bush often coach their clients on how to become bundlers themselves; there are now so many executives trying to be recognized as Rangers and Pioneers, lobbyist Lanny Griffith told National Journal, that "competition is pretty fierce for getting credit."

No industry, however, has produced as many top Bush fundraisers as the finance sector, which in the past had split its contributions between Republicans and Democrats. Finance-industry leaders accounted for 20 percent of the campaign's Rangers and Pioneers as of late last year; already, Wall Street has delivered more in contributions to Bush than it did in the entire 2000 campaign. Many of these executives rely on their employees and business associates to pull in contributions. For example, Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O'Neal, a Ranger, sent letters to 300 of his top executives, urging them to give to the Bush campaign. By March of this year, Merrill Lynch employees and their families had contributed more than $458,000, making the company Bush's No. 1 source of campaign money. Among the 10 companies whose employees have given the most to Bush, six are New York-based financial houses whose top executives are either Rangers or Pioneers.

What put the financial industry so squarely in Bush's camp? The president's tax cuts -- which reduced or eliminated taxes on dividends, capital gains, and estates -- are a major reason; the financial industry's trade group, the Securities Industry Association, lobbied hard for those cuts. The president's 2005 budget offers another initiative popular with Wall Street -- a new kind of tax-free retirement account that, according to the Securities Industry Association's annual report, was hatched during the group's "discussions with the White House." If Bush is re-elected, many in the industry expect him to block moves to tighten securities regulation and to work toward privatizing Social Security by letting workers invest part of their contributions directly in the stock market.

Not all of Bush's top fundraisers are attracted simply by the president's pro-business, anti-regulatory approach; some have very specific agendas of their own that the administration has favored, sometimes in direct contradiction of its broader policies. Rangers and Pioneers from Florida-based sugar companies, for example, have been pushing federal officials to exempt their industry from free-trade agreements with Australia and Central American countries. In January, according to the journal Inside U.S. Trade, sugar lobbyists met with Rove, who then contacted U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick. Despite its stated commitment to free trade, the administration quickly changed course. The Australian trade pact was rewritten to keep barriers against foreign sugar in place; meanwhile, negotiations on the Central American pact are continuing.