WASHINGTON – As fund-raiser-in-chief for Republican Senate candidates, Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist helped generate record amounts for colleagues who in January will address him as "Mr. Majority Leader."
During his two years at the helm of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Frist helped raise $124 million, money that fueled the GOP's takeover of the Senate last month. The 50-year-old heart surgeon turned politician also gave Republicans hundreds of thousands of dollars from his own political action committee.
Frist is also proud of his party's get-out-the-vote drive last month. "Normally, it is the Democrats who are so good at turning out the vote," he says on the NRSC's Web site. "But this year we had a plan in place and we executed it with surgical precision."
Senate Republicans on Monday chose the second-term senator to replace Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi as the head of their caucus when Congress reconvenes Jan. 7, the GOP holding an effective 51-49 majority. Lott agreed to give up the post last week amid a furor over racially insensitive remarks he made Dec. 5 at a 100th birthday celebration for retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
As the Senate GOP's campaign chairman, Frist spent two years collecting chits from candidates he sought out and persuaded to run for office, then gave them and incumbents the money and tools to win.
Frist helped collect more than $58 million in regulated "hard" money donations for GOP Senate candidates in the 2001-02 election cycle, exceeding the $48 million raised by the Democrats' Senate campaign committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
He also helped raise more than $66 million in "soft" money -- large, unregulated gifts from corporations and wealthy individuals -- breaking the NRSC's own soft-money record of $43 million in 2000, according to the nonpartisan research group that tracks the money in politics.
In addition, Frist gave $232,000 to Republican candidates by dipping into his own leadership fund-raising committee, Volunteer PAC.
He gave the maximum $10,000 donation to 16 candidates, several of whom were in tight races, including incumbent Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado and six newcomers: Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, John Sununu of New Hampshire, James Talent of Missouri and John Cornyn of Texas. Suzanne Terrell of Louisiana, another beneficiary, lost to Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu in a Dec. 7 runoff.
Volunteer PAC also sent $620,000 in hard and soft money to the NRSC.
His success put Frist in the perfect position to assume his party's mantel when Lott stumbled. It also endeared him to a White House that for the first time in 18 months will have its own party controlling the agenda in the Senate as well as the House.
"Senator Frist has tremendous integrity, an ethic of hard work and the ability to lead," said Talent, who lobbied other Republicans in the incoming Senate class to support the Tennessean.
Dole also praised Frist's "excellent job" at the NRSC, predicting he will follow up his leadership on important health care issues to become "a compassionate and effective majority leader."
Democrats, meanwhile, recognize Frist as an astute player of hardball politics.
"He authorized the first attacks of my re-election campaign against me and I understand that," said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who defeated the White House's hand-picked challenger, Rep. John Thune, by fewer than 550 votes.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, citing alleged incidents of intimidation of minority voters in Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and New Jersey, called Frist's elevation to Senate leader "disturbing."
"If the Republican Party is sincere in wanting to reconcile its poor record on race, it's not enough to get rid of Trent Lott," McAuliffe said. "Senator Frist should start this effort now with a full accounting of the voter intimidation incidents that happened on his watch."
Frist is a Harvard Medical School graduate and founder of Vanderbilt University's organ transplant center. He also is the son of the founder of HCA, the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain.