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Schumer could use campaign warchest to help Democrats win back Senate

WASHINGTON – Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., could be turning into the equivalent of a one-man super PAC.

Schumer, the heir apparent to retiring Minority Leader Harry M. Reid, is leaving no stone unturned in his quest to help Democrats win back the majority in November. And that includes amassing a huge stockpile of campaign cash for his own campaign: more than $26 million as of March 31, according to federal reports.

Facing a dramatically underfunded challenger in the fall, Schumer may find himself in the position of being able to transfer millions of dollars to Democratic committees that would boost the party’s chances of winning critical Senate races.

Schumer, who declined to comment about his plans, has been generous in previous election seasons in which he faced nominal opposition and his colleagues were in difficult races. In 2004, when the New Yorker wasn’t even sure if he was long for the Senate and was considering running for governor, Schumer unloaded millions of dollars from his own campaign in a series of five-, six- and seven-figure checks that went to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and to state Democratic committees in key battlegrounds.

Under federal election law, campaign committees raise contributions under specific limits, currently $2,700 from individuals and $5,000 from political action committees, but at any point candidates can declare they have excess cash and donate unlimited sums directly to other party committees, charities or other nonprofits such as universities.

The law forbids something like “Friends of Schumer,” as the Democrat’s campaign committee is known, from shipping unlimited sums directly to the campaign of a specific candidate, instead requiring those mega donations to go to party committees that in turn can spend the money to benefit those campaigns.

It’s not a new move, as Schumer’s 2004 cash transfers demonstrate, and John A. Boehner used an aggressive version of this in his years as House speaker, an approach that Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., has adopted in his first months since taking the gavel from the now-retired Ohio Republican.

What sets Schumer apart from past congressional leaders is the sheer amount of money being raised by the man who wants to become majority leader next year.

By comparison, the largest cash stockpile on the Republican side belongs to Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who has almost $13.5 million on hand; Schumer, without any real challenge to worry about, has twice as much cash as the best-funded Republican.

In Schumer’s 2004 re-election, his campaign peaked at almost $21.9 million in cash, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. In 2010, he peaked at $23.8 million. Now, he has already blown past those figures and, raising funds at an average of more than $2 million per quarter, he could add millions more to the cash that might be able to benefit other candidates over the next six months.

Schumer could provide a key edge in the fundraising battle between the DSCC and its counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Committee. At the end of March, the GOP committee had $20 million cash in its account, with the Democrats slightly below that, at $19.2 million.

In years past, despite the weak Republican bench in the New York, Schumer has adopted the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. He always made sure he was ready to take on a tough challenger should one emerge, and he also knew that having a well-stocked war chest would discourage some of those challengers. In addition, representing a state with nearly 100 billionaires and many others whose net worth ran into the hundreds of millions, Schumer knew he ran the risk of facing an opponent who could self-fund a campaign.

This year, however, is not that year, in terms of candidate recruitment.

Wendy Long, a social conservative activist, received the GOP nomination in early March to run against Schumer. Now a supporter of Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, Long was last seen in Empire State politics when she challenged Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in 2012.

Long received 26 percent of the vote and ended the campaign heavily in debt. she still owes $312,000 in debt from that race.

As of March 31, Long had less than $25,000 in her campaign account. After defeating GOP incumbent Alfonse D’Amato in 1998, Schumer has coasted in his two most recent races, winning by more than 30 percent in 2010, a bad year for Democrats.

This election presents Democrats the chance to play more offense than they initially had imagined. The hope is that Trump’s rise and his reputation for being polarizing will allow some Republican-held seats that had been regarded as safe to emerge as potential Democratic targets.