On a recent afternoon in Manhattan, Leo Hindrey invited several close friends to the Four Seasons for his version of "a Tupperware party." In this case the product was Democrats' bid to take over the House in 2004, and the goal was to persuade as many friends as possible to assemble, listen to a political pitch and dole out $5,000 to $25,000.
Hindrey, who heads the Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network, gave Democrats more than $1.5 million from 1999 to 2002. The nation's new campaign finance law now bars such generosity, so loyalists like Hindrey are being urged to recruit upper-income friends to fill the gap.
Proponents of the law, known as McCain-Feingold, predicted it would force politicians to reach out to ordinary Americans who might give $50 or $100 to a campaign. But at least in the short term, the law is prompting both major parties to search diligently for upper-income people who might give amounts approaching the new maximum for an individual's donations to a national party: $57,500, in increments of as much as $25,000.
Both parties will face their first major test on this front this month, when they hold their annual spring fundraising dinners.
Under the old law, congressional candidates could count on a handful of corporations, unions and individuals to give hundreds of thousands of dollars for such fetes. Now such unlimited "soft money" gifts to federal candidates and parties are banned. Mega-donors who might have given $500,000 or even $1 million after a single phone call are no longer free to do so. Executives can't simply cut a check for $250,000 from their company's coffers.
So lawmakers are investing more time in reaching out to men and women who can give tens of thousands of dollars each. Companies, which now can donate no more than $15,000 per year through their political action committees, are a lower priority.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), a senior member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who is chairing the Republicans' dinner tonight, said he was focused on wealthy couples with a history of supporting Republicans.
"You're going to see a greater emphasis on larger individual donors because they're going to be able to give $25,000 rather than $15,000 for PACs," he said. "It's dawning on people we can get $25,000 from individuals, or $50,000 from a couple."
Rep. Robert T. Matsui (Calif.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, agrees. In the past, he said, Democrats had relied on a few super-wealthy supporters to write enormous checks. Now they must woo many more well-off -- though not extraordinarily wealthy -- donors, hoping each will contribute $15,000 to $25,000. "Those have become the prime donor lists," Matsui said.
Democrats face a particularly tough challenge. Of the $860,000 raised at last spring's dinner, $800,000 was in the form of soft money, which is no longer allowed.
Seeking to compensate for this loss, the DCCC has created a "Leadership Board" for anyone who can raise $50,000. At least half of the donations must be raised by the March 25 dinner. Benefits include an exclusive "kickoff" at the home of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), as well as a ski trip to Vail, Colo., next January and a spring golf tournament.
There is no neat profile for these targeted donors, although they tend to be upscale professionals and mid- to upper-level managers in cities that remain Democratic strongholds, such as Los Angeles, New York and Boston.
Hindrey said his lunch -- where Pelosi was the guest speaker -- was an effort to attract wealthy donors and counter the Republicans' natural fundraising advantage among the upper middle class. While cultivating small donors was a laudable goal, Hindrey said, party leaders can't afford to wait until they manage to build a giant list of them.
"Until the party has done a better job building the grass-roots contribution capability [that the] Republicans have, this seems to be an appropriate stopgap measure," Hindrey said.
While Republicans have also scaled back expectations -- they are aiming to raise $4 million at tonight's dinner, half as much as they did last year -- party leaders are demanding that rank-and-file House members raise at least $25,000 each to help meet the party's overall goals.
"It's going to be a bit of a culture shock," said Rep. Mike Rogers (Mich.), the National Republican Congressional Committee's finance chair. The money from the dinner goes directly to the NRCC, which in turn can funnel it toward the most vulnerable members in next year's election.
"We get enormous pressure to make phone calls," said Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.). "They come and give you lists to call, or they ask you to furnish lists of your supporters."
While senior members traditionally use their Washington contacts to cull donations, Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the NRCC, and his deputies are asking more junior members to use their ties outside the Beltway to collect money.
"This is not an effort to get the usual suspects," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who narrowly edged out a Democrat to take over retiring Rep. J.C. Watts's seat. "It's much heavier lifting . . . . Part of this is explaining to donors the consequences of campaign finance reform."
Democrats are calling on both members and traditional big givers to tap professionals who can give thousands to the party. Alan Solomont, a Boston venture capitalist, will be co-host of an event with the Massachusetts delegation honoring Pelosi on Thursday. He expects each guest will contribute at least $5,000, with a total of $10,000 per couple.
"There are thousands and thousands of Democrats at this level," Solomont said, adding that many are "outraged" at the Bush administration's handling of economic and international affairs. "Under the new rules, we're going to reach out and make some people understand the importance of this."
Politically active lobbyists, meanwhile, must persuade corporation and trade association honchos to give personally to the parties now that they can no longer rely on soft money donations.
"They're reluctant to give personal dollars," said Brad Card, a partner at the Dutko Group and one of two dozen lobbyists on the GOP dinner's steering committee. "There's a mentality they have to get over."