Incoming GOP freshmen rapidly embracing big-money fundraisers

By Dan Eggen
Monday, December 6, 2010; 12:25 AM

After Francisco "Quico" Canseco beat Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Tex.) as part of the Republican wave on Nov. 2, the tea party favorite declared: "It's going to be a new day in Washington."

Two weeks later, Canseco was in the heart of Washington for a $1,000-a-head fundraiser at the Capitol Hill Club. The event--hosted by Reps. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) and Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.)--was aimed at paying off more than $1.1 million in campaign debts racked up by Canseco, much of it from his own pocket.

After winning election with an anti-Washington battle cry, Canseco and other incoming Republican freshmen have rapidly embraced the capital's culture of big-money fundraisers, according to new campaign-finance reports and other records.

Dozens of freshmen lawmakers have held receptions at Capitol Hill bistros and corporate townhouses in recent weeks, taking money from K Street lobbyists and other powerbrokers within days of their victories. Newly elected House members have raised at least $2 million since the election, according to preliminary Federal Election Commission records filed last week, and many more contributions have yet to be tallied.

The aggressive fundraising efforts underscore the financial pressures facing new members of Congress even before they take their seats. The contributions also represent a symbolic challenge for the Republican class of 2010, many of whom gained office by running against the ways of official Washington and monied interests.

"The lobbyists are all saying, 'Welcome to Washington; let me help pay off your debt,'" said Nancy Watzman, who tracks political fundraisers for the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group. "It's particularly interesting when so many of this year's freshmen were running against Washington. But as soon as they get elected, they come to Washington and put out their hand."

But GOP officials and legislative aides defend the fundraising push as simple pragmatism: the cost of winning office in Congress is high, especially during a midterm election that saw record expenditures on scores of competitive races. Many new House members are scrambling to take care of debts from 2010 so they can turn their attention to the next cycle, according to aides and campaign-finance experts.

"The first step in raising money for the 2012 election cycle is to close the door on the 2010 election cycle," said Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is headed by Sessions. "Chairman Sessions appreciates the hard fought battles that have left incoming members with debt to retire, and he is committed to helping them enter the next election cycle in a strong position."

Incoming GOP lawmakers have held more than a dozen "debt retirement" fundraisers over the past month, according to a partial tally by the Sunlight Foundation. Examples include incoming representative Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), who held a debt-retirement dinner at Carmine's Restaurant last Wednesday night; required donations were $2,500 for guests and $5,000 for sponsors, according to an invitation.

Spokesmen for Walberg and many other newly elected lawmakers did not respond to requests for comment about their post-election fundraising.

Rep.-elect Bill Flores (R-Tex.), a retired energy executive who held a debt-retirement reception Nov. 17, received post-election contributions from political-action committees for, among others, Deloitte, ExxonMobil and the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors. Flores, who ousted Democratic veteran Chet Edwards, also forgave himself more than $600,000 in personal loans, FEC records show.

The financial advisors group also gave $2,500 each to more than a dozen other incoming legislators including Rep.-elect Dan Benishek (R-Mich.), who held a Nov. 18 fundraiser, records show. Benishek took in last-minute donations from Johnson Controls, Delta Airlines and the K&L Gates lobbying firm, records show.

Benishek is a surgeon and abortion opponent who won the seat being vacated by centrist Democrat Bart Stupak (D-Mich.). He campaigned against "ungodly spending" in Washington and pledged not to seek earmarks, which designate federal funds for local projects.

Andrew Theodore, an Alexandria, Va., consultant who raises money for Benishek and nine other GOP freshmen, said the need to pay off debt is particularly acute this year. "This is the biggest freshman class we've had in a while, and as a result you just see more debt out there," he said.

Theodore also scoffed at the idea that accepting money from corporate PACs and lobbyists is at odds with the anti-Washington message of the 2010 class.

"These guys ran against Washington, but they ran against the bad parts of Washington--the bloated bureaucracy and Nancy Pelosi's agenda," he said. "That's not a contradiction to take money from a trade group or corporation that represents free-enterprise principles."

One trade group active since the midterms is the Dealers Election Action Committee, the PAC arm of the National Automotive Dealers Association. The group has made donations to at least a half dozen incoming freshmen over the past month, including Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Jim Renacci (R-Ohio.), FEC records show.

Incoming House member Robert Hurt, who railed against "union and special interest money" during his campaign against Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), received contributions for debt retirement from Rolls-Royce, Verizon Communications , Yum Brands Inc. and others. Overall, Hurt received more than $600,000 from PACs in 2010, according to the FEC.

Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said debt-retirement events and other post-election fundraisers "are God's gift to special interests," allowing corporate PACs and lobbyists to curry favor with grateful lawmakers. It also allows some donors to pitch in with a candidate that they had previously ignored or opposed, she said.

"If you were on the wrong side or just AWOL during the election, this is your chance to make it up," McGehee said. "It' s a great way to get in good with members of Congress."

Staff writer T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.

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