The limousine ride from the White House last week took five minutes, delivering President Obama to the Mandarin Oriental hotel near L’Enfant Plaza at 5:49 p.m. Waiting for him were about two dozen donors who had paid a minimum of $60,000 each for a private “roundtable” that included presidential comments followed by a Q&A.
By 6:48 p.m., Obama was back at the White House, headed toward the Oval Office. The estimated haul: at least $1.5 million, to be divided among his reelection campaign, the Democratic National Committee and several state parties.
For rate of return on candidate time, that’s pretty sweet.
Money moves through Washington like blood through arteries, and never more so than during election season. For Obama, that means leveraging his advantage as the candidate whose day job is in the heart of downtown.
As his motorcade darts across the city, snarling traffic and sealing off sidewalks, it could be another dash for cash. It is part of a blistering fundraising pace in a campaign in which spending by both candidates and allied groups may exceed $2 billion. Obama’s Friday schedule listed three private gatherings with close-by contributors, including one at the Jefferson hotel, four blocks from his desk.
Donors in New York and California have given more, but the Washington region, with its vast community of wealthy lawyers, executives, political operatives and players willing to fly in for a few minutes of presidential face time, offers big money virtually at Obama’s doorstep.
Campaign officials will not discuss specific figures, but presidential schedules, statements and published reports show that Obama has raised at least $20 million this year by venturing no farther than 1.4 miles from the White House. Most of the forays have been to caucus with deep-pocketed contributors at nearby hotels, such as the Mandarin, the W and the Jefferson.
Expand that radius by just a few miles and there’s millions more in the form of similarly brief but profitable visits — to private homes. On Jan. 31, after a fundraiser with about 50 donors at the St. Regis on 16th Street NW ($35,800 per person; estimated take: at least $1.8 million), Obama headed to the Chevy Chase residence of Stewart Bainum, chairman of Choice Hotels and Manor Care. For after-dinner remarks and questions from about 70 guests, Obama took in an estimated $2.5 million.
At the Kalorama home of gay activists Nan Schaffer and Karen Dixon on Feb. 9, he secured about $1.4 million. Former DNC chairman and likely 2013 Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe hosted Obama at his McLean residence in April, with Bill Clinton as a featured guest. About 500 people paid $1,000 each for the reception. Eighty dinner guests wrote checks for at least $20,000.
With recent reports showing Obama falling behind Republican Mitt Romney in the money chase, the local fundraising takes on added significance. Donors have been pelted with calls, with campaign bundlers searching for fresh sources of cash while doubling and tripling down on contributors who have not maxed out to their legal limit.
“Someone on the national finance committee becomes your best friend until you write a check,” said Al Dwoskin, a Northern Virginia real estate developer and property manager. He joined about 20 other donors who paid at least $35,800 in January to join Obama around a polished wood conference table at the clubby Jefferson hotel.
Obama is by no means the first White House incumbent to grab the low-hanging local fruit, and he has attacked it with zeal. Of the 111 fundraising events he has attended this year, 24 were in the Washington area. The second most frequently tapped venue has been California, with 14.
“The city is set up for it,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors campaign spending. “The apparatus is here, ready to mobilize.”
Romney also has been active here. Last month, he held a $50,000-per-person dinner at the Georgetown home of real estate developer Bob Pence. On Romney’s behalf, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) drew several hundred donors to the Willard Hotel last Wednesday for a breakfast and discussion. And Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) recently hosted young professionals on the roof deck of the Homer Building, on 13th Street NW.
Like Romney’s fundraising events, most of Obama’s interactions with the big donors are not open to the news media. Attendees at the Obama sessions say they usually begin with the president reviewing key issues, expressing particular concern about those over which he has limited control, such as gas prices, European finances and the Middle East. He also warns of the prodigious fundraising on the Republican side.
“He was very candid about what he was up against,” said Donald Tucker, a Bethesda architect and developer who specializes in affordable housing. He attended the January dinner at Bainum’s home in exchange for his $35,800 donation. Questions from donors covered a variety of issues, including taxes and the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Exchanges can occasionally get edgy or awkward.
“You had your turn — now it’s my turn,” Obama said, cutting off a donor at the Jefferson this year, according to one attendee.
Some questions can elicit eye rolls. One person at the Bainum event asked how the president might recapture some of the magic of his 2008 campaign. Obama said, in essence: That was then, this is now.
Contributors said the president’s remarks rarely surprise. In a world of iPhones and tweets, the risks of going off-message are too high. Obama probably learned that the hard way in 2008, when he said at a closed San Francisco fundraiser that small-town Pennsylvania voters “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” to deal with their anger over the economy. The comments found their way into the media. (Now, on at least some occasions, donors are asked to surrender their phones before meeting the president.)
“He stays within the party line,” said Denise Glassman, a Chevy Chase Democratic activist. “He’s not stupid.”
She and her husband, who are neighbors of Bainum’s, contributed $35,800 for dinner in a heated backyard tent.
With the flood of independent money in the race, the president has invested unprecedented energy in the cash chase. A study by U.S. Naval Academy political science professor Brendan Doherty found that through July 18, Obama held 183 fundraisers for his reelection committee and the DNC. That’s more than George W. Bush’s and Clinton’s combined during the last two years of their first terms. Obama campaign officials disputed Doherty’s calculus, saying that Bush and Republicans counted multiple events at a single site as a single fundraiser.
While the Obama campaign prefers to talk about its tens of thousands of small-scale donors who contribute amounts under $250, the president’s schedule is peppered with examples of his pursuit of the big checks.
He is a virtual regular at the Jefferson, slipping into the venerable Beaux-Arts hotel 11 times since January for donor gatherings. Neither campaign nor hotel officials discuss why it has become a fundraising venue of choice, although proximity and security are probably factors.
It probably also doesn’t hurt that the hotel’s owner is a major Democratic contributor. In March, Connie Milstein, principal and co-founder of Ogden CAP Properties, and her husband, Jehan-Christophe de La Haye Saint Hilaire, each gave $75,800 — the maximum allowable individual donation.
Dan Eggen, T.W. Farnam and David Nakamura contributed to this report.