The Conservative Political Action Conference is not the cash cow it once was for Republicans.
The conservative gathering, which draws attendees from across the country, used to be a no-brainer opportunity for lawmakers and presidential candidates to host fundraising events.
Last year, both Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio — then a long-shot candidate for Senate — held marquee events. Romney wasn’t officially running for office, but the one-time Massachusetts governor held a “Stars and Strikes: Bowling with Mitt” event that was hosted by more than a dozen prominent K Street names. Rubio, who was a CPAC keynote speaker that year, raised money with help from several lobbyists at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
But this year, neither is doing a fundraising event, and Republican lobbyists and fundraisers say they aren’t the only ones who aren’t trying to cash in.
In part, the decline of money events can be traced to the controversy surrounding the three-day event that starts Thursday, according to K Street sources and Republican aides. More than a dozen sources declined to comment for the record about the fundraising decline, citing concerns about speaking publicly about CPAC, but one aide said recent publicity “feeds into” decisions not to hold events.
The heart of the controversy was the decision by CPAC organizers to permit GOProud, a group of gay conservatives, to participate in conference events. Several lawmakers and other right-leaning groups such as Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation are boycotting the conference in protest.
A Republican lobbyist, who has hosted fundraisers in previous years during CPAC, said the politically sensitive dispute made for an undesirable fundraising environment.
“Controversy means people don’t want to fundraise around it,” the GOP lobbyist said.
Another factor, noted by a Republican Senate aide, is that presidential fundraising has been slow to start without a clear frontrunner.
“There seems to be this gap in timing that CPAC is falling into,” the aide said. “With presidentials delayed and the huge midterms, people are taking a breather.”
CPAC organizer David Keene downplayed the controversy as the reason for the drop-off in fundraisers.
“The fundraising usually takes place here because a prospective candidate is here, it isn’t directly associated with the conference,” Keene said. “The controversy has been a tempest in a teapot in D.C. ... [but] for everybody who has gotten upset, somebody has gotten attracted to it.”
Keene attributed the lack of auxiliary fundraising to potential presidential candidates waiting to get into the race.
GOP lobbyist Dan Mattoon also blamed the drop-off in fundraisers on the delay in starting what he called the “invisible primary” between Republican candidates before the Iowa caucuses in 2012.
“People have put a pause on getting involved, at least publicly,” the former National Republican Congressional Committee deputy chairman said. “The bottom line is the date of the CPAC conference seems this year at least to predate what activity you would normally see, what you saw four years ago, eight years ago.”
The limited fundraising on behalf of presidential candidates is also because there is a “lack of intensity and interest when it comes to presidential candidates,” according to one GOP strategist.
“There does not appear to be a consensus candidate and no prospective candidate meets all of the conservative litmus tests,” the strategist said.
Fundraisers also pointed to donor fatigue following the crush of events leading up to the midterm elections in November and said companies are just starting to replenish their political action committees.
“Generally it’s slower in the first quarter,” another Republican lobbyist said, noting that some PACs have a policy that they won’t contribute in the first quarter.
Not everyone is shying away from holding events over the weekend, though.
The conservative One Nation PAC is hosting a “Scotch & Cigars” fundraiser honoring freshman Reps. Dan Benishek (Mich.), Tom Reed (N.Y.) and Austin Scott (Ga.). Held at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel, the same venue as the conference, the fundraiser has several tiers for hosts, including the highest level of $5,000 for PACs and $2,000 for individuals to be a “Patron.”
One Nation PAC founder Kelly Eustis acknowledged the lack of fundraisers and said candidates are more focused on hosting receptions.
“I believe there’s quite a lot of events going on but not so much in the ways of fundraisers,” Eustis said. “Many of the Republican presidential contenders are throwing hospitality suites and short receptions.”
GOProud is also hosting a party featuring conservative media activist Andrew Breitbart and singer and songwriter Sophie B. Hawkins. The event, which is not a fundraiser, is being sponsored by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Poker Players Alliance, Institute for Liberty and others.
GOProud Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia said the notoriety that has come with the CPAC flap has helped the group’s fundraising. GOProud is holding a fundraiser later this month, and LaSalvia said the event Thursday is about people who have backed the group.
“It’s a way to show appreciation to folks who have expressed support for our organization and for CPAC,” he said.