POLITICO: Freshmen cash in
By: Anna Palmer and Marin Cogan
They might be rookies, but freshman Republicans are becoming Washington fundraising pros.
In September and October, the House freshmen are hosting at least 100 fundraisers at Washington power-broker haunts like Charlie Palmer Steak and the Capitol Hill Club, a private GOP hangout, for which the price of admission can run between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars, according to recent fundraising lists obtained by POLITICO.
The events usually attract a lobbyist crowd and sometimes include high-profile guests, like Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks’s $500-per-plate dinner — $1,500 if you’re a political action committee — at the Capitol Hill Club on Oct. 12 that will feature House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney’s dinner Tuesday at Acqua Al 2, a high-end Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill, with guest Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for which tickets run from $1,000 for individuals to $1,500 for PACs.
Engaging K Street in the dollar dash might cut against the new class’s reformist line, but the freshmen say it’s necessary if they want to return to Washington as sophomores.
“It’s about getting a message out,” said Indiana Rep. Marlin Stutzman. “To get a message out, it takes money.”
The perception that they’ve gone Washington isn’t an issue, he added.
“I’m not that worried about it. You have a very small group of people who will make an issue out of it, and usually, they disagree with you on the politics anyway,” he said.
Filling their campaign coffers this cycle could prove more difficult than when they were unknowns. Energy is shifting toward the Senate and White House races that Republicans feel they have a shot at winning, according to Republican strategists like Rob Collins.
“It’s not been nearly [as] easy as we were told it would be,” said Mulvaney. “Everyone tells you when you become a member of Congress that it will be easy to raise a quarter million dollars in the first week, and that’s not accurate,” said Mulvaney, who defeated Democrat John Spratt last year. “It’s been extraordinarily difficult to raise money in Washington. I think [because] there’s 87 freshmen, there’s a lot of folks chasing those dollars and the economy is not where any of us would like it to be, so that has an impact.”
Attitudes among the freshmen about fundraising generally fall into two camps: those who enjoy and excel at it and those who profess to hate the Washington money game but consider it a necessary, if distasteful, part of the job.
When asked if he enjoys fundraising, Brooks answered without hesitation: “Absolutely not. It is the most dissatisfactory part of the job.”
Brooks is hosting several Capitol Hill Club fundraisers this fall with the price tag running from $500 for individuals to $2,000 for PACs.
“The biggest challenge to meet is raising money for the [National Republican Congressional Committee]. It’s the hardest to do; it’s the least pleasing to do,” Brooks said. “Then we raise money for the Young Guns program. For instance, my dues for NRCC is $70,000; for the Young Guns program, it’s $6,000 to $12,000. Then I have fundraising obligations for my own campaign.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy, who won his first elected office in South Carolina’s 4th Congressional District last November after knocking off Republican incumbent Bob Inglis in the primary, also falls squarely into the latter camp. “I am bad at it, and I don’t enjoy it — that’s not a good combination,” Gowdy said.
That isn’t stopping him from trying. Gowdy was slated to hold back-to-back breakfast and lunch fundraisers Sept. 21, starting with an energy breakfast at the Capitol Hill Club followed by a noon event at a Capitol Hill townhouse. He’s asking $2,000 for PACs and $1,000 for individuals to co-host and $1,000 for PACs and $500 for individuals to attend. He has at least three other fundraisers planned for the coming weeks.
“It is inextricably intertwined with political success, so you have to be a realist about it, but I don’t enjoy calling people, particularly in this economic environment,” Gowdy said, calling to mind a friend in his district who is worth several hundred million dollars. The freshman lawmaker, who prefers to solicit donations with an unobtrusive, handwritten note, hasn’t been able to bring himself to ask for a contribution yet.
“I don’t want to be someone that they dodge when they see me at the grocery store or church,” Gowdy said. “I’m not going to be doing this forever, and I’m going to go back home. I would rather be respected than reelected,” he said.
Gowdy gets encouragement from his South Carolina classmate Tim Scott, and both frequently turn to House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for fundraising advice.
“He talks about how to do the events on a consistent basis without it consuming all of your time,” said Scott, who prefers larger events where he can touch base with several donors at once.“Don’t just call people when you need money; care about what you represent and care about their issues. It has to be authentic, too — don’t call people who you don’t have anything in common with; call people who are like you, who think like you.”
Scott is slated to headline a handful of events over the next month, sticking with venue standbys like the Capitol Hill Club and We the Pizza, a popular Capitol Hill eatery. The freshman class liaison to GOP leadership is also getting some fundraising help by way of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who is attending an 8 a.m. breakfast fundraiser for Scott at the Capitol Hill Club as a “Special Guest.” Scott is hoping to get downtowners to cut checks for $1,000 for PACs and $500 for individuals to attend the event.
Indiana Rep. Todd Rokita is one of the standout fundraisers in the freshman class. He was the only freshman to contribute to the NRCC’s Patriot Program for endangered freshmen and incumbent lawmakers in the first quarter; he recruited 31 fellow freshmen to donate at an event this month and has personally given to more than 20 lawmakers and two candidates. But even he confesses there are “some days when I’d rather eat my arm off.”
And while Republicans in the 63 districts that switched parties in 2010 will be focused on defending their turf in 2012, the anti-incumbent and tea party influences in recent election cycles have created new difficulties, even for the freshmen in traditionally safe Republican districts.
One Republican fundraiser described the sweet spot for freshman GOP-ers as being seen as vulnerable but not in a very difficult race, because big contributors and leadership will want to write checks to someone who needs the money but who they also believe will make it back for another term.
Tennessee Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, who spent nearly $1.3 million in 2010, most of it to win an 11-way primary, is in such a spot. Republicans in his district were buzzing about a primary challenge almost immediately after he was sworn in. But Fleischmann, like most of his colleagues, said he wasn’t concerned his D.C. fundraisers would open him to attacks that he’s “gone Washington.”
“I think if you do your job well, the other things tend to take care of [themselves],” Fleischmann said. “We’re not unduly concerned about any primary challenge.”
Brooks said that fundraising in a crowded field of 87 freshmen can be difficult — especially when most members don’t yet have an opponent.
“If you have an opponent, then people sit up and take notice,” he said. “When you ask for help but … you don’t have a rumored Democrat or Republican opponent, it’s like, ‘Mo, why should I donate to you when you don’t have an opponent? You’re going to win, and I have other people I want to help.’”