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.
Kingston, who is also vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, held weekly meetings with his team captains and called members who were not meeting their goals to give them a boost. Kingston, the son of an educational psychologist, said he is using the same formula to motivate members to raise money that he used when he was in his twenties and selling commercial insurance strictly on commission: Make it fun, while warning of what could go wrong.
"Politics is a dangerous world where all the tides ebb and flow real quickly," he said. "We have to raise money to compete in the marketplace."
The House expects to hit its goal of $14 million. The Senate side, led by Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), expects to exceed its $8 million goal by $1 million. Sen. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the lead committee for the dinner, set goals of $25,000 to $750,000.
Of the House's $14 million, $10 million is expected to come from lawmakers' fundraising and a Washington program aimed at K Street, run by former House members Bill Paxon and his wife, Susan Molinari. The remaining $4 million is expected to come from NRCC mail and telemarketing. An individual can give as much as $26,700 to national party committees in a calendar year, so could buy as many as 10 tickets.
Lawmakers spur donations with dire warnings about a possible Democratic takeover. A sample script in the House members' packets urged them to point out: "The GOP since 1856 has always lost seats when a Republican President is in power during a second mid-term election. . . . History is once again against us in 2006."
Members were given a red folder with an Excel spreadsheet showing their goals, which range from $150,000 for members of the leadership to $50,000 for average members. After a House member turns in a yellow "commitment form" from a person or political action committee, the NRCC's 14-member finance staff follows up to get the check or take a credit-card number.
Most of the easy-to-get K Street cash from lobbyists, trade associations and political action committees was scooped up this spring by an $8 million NRCC gala and a $15 million Republican National Committee dinner. That means that about 70 percent of the haul tonight will come from doctors, small-business people and other beyond-the-Beltway types that Kingston refers to as "Joe Idaho."
Among them is Ralph B. Buckner Jr. of Cleveland, Tenn., who owns seven funeral homes in Tennessee and Georgia and who bought enough tickets to fill half a table -- totaling $12,500 -- from Rep. Zach Wamp (Tenn.). Buckner, 49, and his wife, Chari, are making a four-day trip of it. "It's not something I would or could do every year, trust me," he said.
Wamp, who collected triple his quota of $50,000, recalled a speech he gave at the first organizational meeting for the dinner.
He told members: "If you don't think it's all on the line, you haven't studied history."