Hard Cash Is Main Course for GOP Fundraiser

The President's Dinner tonight is expected to bring in $23 million for the Republican House and Senate campaign committees.
The President's Dinner tonight is expected to bring in $23 million for the Republican House and Senate campaign committees. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 14, 2005

How do you collect $23 million, $2,500 at a time?

That is what Republican lawmakers have spent months doing in preparation for tonight's President's Dinner, a fundraiser for the party's House and Senate campaign committees that lures well-off donors from across the country to a blue-carpeted hangar-size hall for the chance to hear President Bush speak and to dine on beef tenderloin en croute with 5,500 others.

Because of the new fundraising limits Bush signed into law in 2002, the parties can no longer rely on mega-donors who once gave by the hundreds of thousands. Now much of the money is raised by selling $2,500-a-plate dinner tickets, a laborious process that is consuming an increasing amount of lawmakers' time and creativity.

Many members loathe working the blue call sheets of potential donors. So the parties have developed an enforcement system that, in the case of the House Republicans, includes specific goals for each lawmaker, a network of 35 team captains to track the collection process just the way whips check on votes, and strategic leaks of the latest tallies to embarrass recalcitrant members to get on the phone.

Party leaders pit the House against the Senate in going after donors, and lawmakers use their tallies as a way to promote themselves for future leadership jobs.

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), an obstetrician, had raised $22,500 by last weekend and planned to kick in at least $10,000 from his own campaign account, to get him closer to his goal of $50,000.

"This is the hardest part of being a member, and we all get weary of it," he said. "So much money is spent and sometimes you think, 'Gosh, you know, we need to bring some sanity to this.' But when you've got both sides doing it, it ups the ante."

Members said they often have breakfast with their donors when they come to town and sometimes take them to a committee meeting and introduce them to the chairman. To maximize the number of tables located near the action, organizers set up three daises -- one for House leaders, one for Senate leaders and one for the president (who will speak in front of a mock White House). Lawmakers will spread out among the tables at the Washington Convention Center to rub elbows with donors, and the band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy will entertain.

About 1,000 House donors will attend a luncheon today featuring Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff; 420 Senate donors will lunch with Vice President Cheney.

House donors who collect $25,000 will get to have their photo taken with Bush. New and renewing members of the National Republican Congressional Committee's "218 Club" -- which requires a $15,000 annual contribution and is named for the number of members needed for a majority -- were rewarded with a cocktail cruise on the Potomac last night with former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

"There's something for everybody," said Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the committee. "Raising hard money is hard. Our members have learned it takes persistence."

To pep up the rank and file, Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), the dinner chairman for the House, went before his 230 fellow Republicans this spring in running shorts to urge them to get into the race, then adopted a baseball theme at another meeting to warn them about striking out. Later, he invoked his childhood preacher to tell them about getting the spirit, and compared the dinner to a church building fund.

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