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WASHINGTON — In June, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz logged 500 miles crisscrossing Ohio on a fundraising tour for his Democratic colleague Sherrod Brown.
Bouncing from town to town, Schatz helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for Brown, a two-term incumbent, who’s trying to hold on against a Republican challenger in a state President Donald Trump carried by 8 points in the 2016 election.
Several months earlier, in February, Schatz invited U.S. Reps. Jacky Rosen of Nevada and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to Honolulu to bolster their upcoming Senate bids.
Each candidate left the islands with thousands of dollars more in their campaign coffers.
Even though Schatz isn’t on the 2018 ballot, he’s hustling as if he were.
Raising money for Democrats is one of his top priorities right now, especially as they try to take back the House and stave off disaster in the Senate by letting Republicans firm up more of the majority.
“I’m not up for election until 2022 and I think this is one of the most important things I can be doing to make sure we have a legislative branch that’s willing to be independent,” Schatz says.
“I consider it one of my highest priorities to make sure we do well in the midterms. I’m doing everything I can to make sure that we provide a check on Trump’s authority through the legislative branch, and the best way to do that is to make sure that Democrats are successful.”
Schatz has been raising money for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as well as individually through his own political action committee, Hawaii PAC, which he uses to host fundraisers for colleagues and give money directly to candidates he supports.
According to Schatz’s campaign, the senator has raised more than $1 million for the DSCC’s Blue Green Council, which is the group’s climate arm. About a quarter of those funds, $250,000, came from a single fundraiser Schatz hosted in Washington.
Schatz has also used his position as the co-chair of the 2044 initiative, an effort that seeks to increase diversity in the party, to raise an additional $250,000 for the DSCC.
But this isn’t the only money Schatz pumps into the DSCC.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Schatz’s campaign gave $500,000 to the DSCC during the 2014-2016 election cycle, which put him in the top five contributors. During the previous cycle, records show he gave the committee $230,000 of campaign cash, which still put him in the top 20.
By comparison, the late-U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye’s campaign gave the DSCC nearly $1.2 million during his last six years in office from 2007 to 2012. His $600,000 in contributions during the 2012 election cycle was enough to make him the third most generous donor behind U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York, who’s now Minority Leader, and Kent Conrad of North Dakota.
In recent years, Schatz has hit his stride on Capitol Hill, carving out a prominent role within the party. In 2017, Schumer appointed Schatz as the Democratic caucus’ chief deputy whip along with U.S. Sens. Cory Booker (New Jersey) and Jeff Merkley (Oregon), a position that’s brought with it more political clout.
“Senator Schatz has been invaluable in our efforts to take back the Senate,” Schumer said in a statement to Civil Beat. “His fundraising prowess has been a big lift to both incumbents and challengers alike.”
Schatz has seen prominent senators, from Kamala Harris (California) and Kirsten Gillibrand (New York) to Booker and Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), sign on to his most progressive legislation, such as a debt-free college plan that received national attention.
As a glowing profile in New York Magazine put it:
“A young legislator from a deep blue state who could easily be re-elected for years to come, it’s no stretch to think (Schatz) could one day wield serious power in the Senate, say both his colleagues and longtime students of the chamber.”
Tina Stoll is the president of Campaign Finance Consultants, a Washington, D.C.-based company that does political fundraising for Democrats, including work for U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine (Virginia), Maria Cantwell (Washington) and Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota).
Stoll said in a year when Senate Democrats face a difficult electoral map — 10 are up for election in states Trump won in 2016 — it’s important for everyone in the caucus to pitch in.
“It’s really tough this year because of the map and the math,” Stoll said. “Everyone is trying to help each other out because it is such a difficult year.”
She says Schatz is well-liked among colleagues and has been putting in a lot of effort on the fundraising side of the job, something that could pay dividends for him in the future, especially if Democrats can gain more sway in Washington.
“It shows that he’s a team player,” Stoll said. “I think it’s great. And I think people appreciate it.”
Data from the Federal Election Commission and Center For Responsive Politics show increased activity within Schatz’s leadership PAC.
According to the latest filings from the current two-year cycle, Schatz raised more than $533,000 as of July 31, which is well above the Senate average of nearly $303,000.
Schatz’s total haul is nearly twice what he raised during the 2014-2016 cycles, when he pulled in about $284,000.
He already spent most of it, or about $520,000 with nearly $190,000 going directly to Senate Democrats, including Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin), Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island) and Chris Murphy (Connecticut).
Records show Schatz also gave $6,000 to fellow Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, who is up for election this year but does not face a serious challenge.
Hirono’s leadership PAC — she calls it the Pineapple PAC — raised nearly $178,000 during the current cycle and spent $173,000.
Like Schatz, Hirono has been an outspoken critic of the Trump administration and has been helping her colleagues raise money.
In April, for example, she traveled to Hollywood to raise money and rub elbows with stars such as Jane Fonda, Connie Britton and television producer Marcy Casey, who brought to life shows such as “Roseanne,” “That 70s Show” and “Mork & Mindy.”
According to a fundraising notice that was obtained by the Los Angeles Times, the event was for Women on the Road 2018, which is affiliated with the DSCC.
Among the senators participating were Hirono, Dianne Feinstein (California), Catherine Cortez Masto (Nevada), Maria Cantwell (Washington), Maggie Hassan (New Hampshire) and Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota).
In the House, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is on a much different tack than Schatz and Hirono. The Hawaii congresswoman has been blatantly critical of her party’s efforts to retake the House.
According to internal DCCC documents obtained by CNN, Gabbard, who’s a prolific fundraiser, only raised $500 for the DCCC’s efforts for the 2018 midterms. She also only gave the DCCC $20,000 of her own campaign funds despite having a stated contribution goal of $125,000.
When CNN questioned Gabbard about her underperformance, her campaign spokeswoman Erika Tsuji said the congresswoman wasn’t pleased with the DCCC’s attacks on progressives.
“Unfortunately, this cycle the DCCC has chosen to spend money on negative campaigning and mudslinging against progressive Democrats in primary elections, which is something Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard cannot support,” Tsuji said.
Federal records show Gabbard’s leadership PAC, Time To Unite Lead And Serve With Integrity (also known as Tulsi PAC) was terminated in July after only raising about $10,000.
Her campaign’s donations to the DCCC have also plummeted in recent years, from a high of $135,000 during the 2014 election cycle to $20,000 during the current two-year period.
Tsuji did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment about why Gabbard shut down Tulsi PAC and whether it was related to her criticisms of the DCCC.
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, meanwhile, paid more than $212,000 in campaign cash to the DCCC during the current election cycle.
Her leadership PAC, known as Little PAC, was not particularly active, only giving out $3,000 to three Democratic House members during the 2018 cycle. Hanabusa recently lost her primary challenge to Hawaii Gov. David Ige.
As for Schatz, who’s not up for re-election until 2022, he said he will continue to do what he can to help elect as many Democrats as possible to the Senate.
He’ll also tell anyone who asks he is absolutely, unequivocally not running for president in 2020.
And while he doesn’t want to predict who the presidential nominee might be, something he admits got him and others Democrats into trouble during the 2016 presidential election, he does expect to see at least a dozen candidates in the field, including several from the Senate.
“I think we should have a wide-open, possibly chaotic, totally unpredictable primary election process,” he said. “The best way to generate enthusiasm and the best way to pick the strongest candidate is to go ahead and let them all run.”
But the key to winning in November and beyond, he said, is honesty and authenticity.
“We can’t allow pollsters to tell us what to talk about and how to say it. We have to speak from the heart, which is not to say we need to be intemperate,” Schatz said. “One of the reasons people were attracted to Donald Trump is they got the sense that there was not any filter at all.”
“Now nobody should be as undisciplined and reckless with their words as he is,” he added. “But I think we could all stand to speak from the gut and speak from the heart a little more. That’s the lesson that I’ve learned.”
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