By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 2 -- Locked in what has become the most expensive congressional race of 2008, Sen. Norm Coleman has turned the Republican National Convention into a fundraising bonanza.
The Minnesota Republican has capitalized on the presence of many of the party's top donors, holding a raft of lavish events, including a cigar bar function headlined by former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. And his efforts have gotten a boost from Jeff Larson, a friend and adviser who is also fundraising coordinator for the convention's host committee.
Coleman's windfall is one of the more subterranean aspects of convention weeks that take place far from the carefully constructed stagecraft that appears on television. That is the mingling of politicians eager for financial support with wealthy donors in convention skyboxes where the price of admission can run to the tens of thousands of dollars, on sunset cruises on the Mississippi River, and at private functions in restaurants.
This year more than ever, Republicans could use the help. After lackluster fundraising, the National Republican Congressional Committee had $14 million in cash on hand at the end of July, compared with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's $57 million. Coming into the convention, the committee charged with electing Republicans to the House had sold out its "platinum" and "gold" convention packages, which grant access to exclusive events such as briefings by senators and Congress members and breakfast meetings with top party officials.
Major donors are being honored at a party on Nicollet Island, and on Monday were shuttled in Cadillac Escalades to a cocktail reception designed to thank them for their contributions.
There was some concern among party officials that the fundraising would halt because of Sen. John McCain's call to put partisan work aside while monitoring the path of Hurricane Gustav. Monica Notzon, a Washington fundraising consultant who has organized many of the convention functions, said she decided that the parties would go on.
"I have added a benefit component to a majority of them," she said. "And we've toned down the general overall feel of the events, so there may be a little bit less of a celebration."
At a lavish event held by Giuliani on Monday night, for instance, staff members wore Red Cross T-shirts, and those attending were asked to match their investment in the event with contributions to hurricane relief efforts.
Notzon said that because the organizers already paid the deposits on the parties and the guests were already in town, she could not justify canceling them.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with that," she said. "We're doing our part to be respectful."
Phil Musser, a Republican fundraiser, said the brief pause to assess the hurricane's impact on the Gulf Coast would not affect efforts to raise money because "most of the donors who are out here are part of a package."
Party fundraising is crucial this year, he noted, because McCain's presidential campaign will rely heavily on the Republican National Committee during the final two months before Election Day. The party will oversee much of the spending because McCain's campaign has accepted public financing and cannot spend money beyond the roughly $84 million it receives from the federal government. Already, fundraising consultants and staff members who had worked inside McCain's campaign have moved to the offices of the RNC, a top campaign aide confirmed Tuesday.
But no single member of the party is likely to benefit from this week's festivities as much as Coleman, who is battling a well-funded and well-known Democratic challenger, the comedian-turned-policy wonk Al Franken. Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman and political strategist, said Coleman will not only raise money this week but also benefit from the long list of volunteers recruited to help host the convention.
Coleman's close relationship with Larson, one of the chief convention's top organizers, cuts both ways. It will give him access to information about donors and volunteers in town this week, but Democrats noted it could also remind voters about ethical questions raised by Coleman's use of Larson's apartment in Washington at what some said was a reduced rate.
A Coleman spokesman said it is against the campaign's policy to discuss its fundraising efforts, but did say the senator is "thrilled" to see the state host this week's festivities.
"The convention is about building interest in the state of Minnesota," Coleman spokesman Luke Friedrich said. "And that is where the senator's focus and vision has been since the decision was made to bring the convention to St. Paul."