Putting ‘Fun’ in Fundraising

Posted March 8, 2004 at 6:58pm

Last Friday, dozens of Republican lobbyists bundled up their spouses and children and flew to snow-swept Montana for a weekend of skiing and snowmobiling with the state’s Republican Senator.

For donations of as little as $1,000 for individuals and $3,000 for corporations, political supporters and lobbyists could dine with Sen. Conrad Burns at the world’s only private ski club as well as “explore the beauty of Montana by snowmobile, ski the pristine slopes of Big Sky Ski and Summer Resort or just spend the weekend relaxing Montana style,” according to an invitation for Burns Winterfest 2004.

But lobbyists who attended one of the year’s most celebrated fundraisers didn’t catch a glimpse of Burns hitting the bumps: The 69-year-old Senator doesn’t ski.

“I’ve only been up on two skis once in my life when I was training in the Marine Corps — I wiped out a whole platoon,” he recalled.

He may not be leading the way on the slopes, but the folksy Burns is on the leading edge of the hottest trend in political fundraising: With hard dollars as rare as Senators in ski boots, an increasing number of political candidates have organized ski trips and other colorful fundraisers to stand out from the avalanche of events spawned by the ban on soft money.

Indeed, events like the Burns ski weekend — which Winterfest regular Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) calls “fun-raisers” — have snowballed.

“There’s huge competition for hard dollars, so Members and fundraisers are looking for more interesting events,” said Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who holds a golf fundraiser each year at California’s renowned Pebble Beach course.

Somewhere between 400 and 500 Members of Congress need to raise money to run for re-election every two years. Meantime, more than 200 lawmakers also run leadership PACs to bolster their political prospects.

But there are only so many hard dollars to go around in Washington.

“You are competing for a limited number of PAC dollars and individuals who are giving,” said Dan Mattoon, a Republican lobbyist and fundraiser for the NRCC. “So they are trying to get away from Bullfeathers and the Monocle to do something that is more creative.”

Anita Dunn, a prominent Democratic consultant, said the competition for hard dollars has led to a steep increase in so-called signature events that offer “some sort of unique twist that sets them apart from other events.”

In the year since the soft-money ban took effect, the number of ski fundraisers alone has nearly doubled.

Ski season opens in early December in Deer Valley, Utah, with a fundraiser that Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) holds at a resort he has returned to since his college days at Brigham Young University.

It used to close with Monday’s last runs in Big Sky.

But this year’s season will extend a little longer than normal. Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) has scheduled his inaugural ski fundraiser for Jackson Hole in two weeks, while Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is bringing supporters for the first time to Aspen, Colo., the following weekend.

In all, more than a dozen Members of Congress hit the slopes for money this year.

To be sure, several of the ski trips have been held for years. For nearly a decade, Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have held competing events in Vail, Colo., over Presidents Day weekend.

But there are plenty of beginners. A pair of Democratic leaders in the Senate, Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.), the party’s Policy Committee chairman, raised $140,000 in late February by teaming up to throw their first $5,000-per-head ski trip to Beaver Creek, Colo.

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) held his first-ever ski weekend in Taos, N.M.; Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) brought supporters to Sun Valley, Idaho; and Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) began a tradition in Deer Valley, Utah, over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

“The requirement that you have more and more hard money is going to drive more and more people to this type of event,” said Bennett, who used his ski trip to raise money for his newly created SNOWPAC. “It’s fully disclosed. It’s fully legal. It’s a little more time consuming than [raising] soft money. It’s just part of the job.”

Organizers of the events say ski trips offer a more attractive alternative to the dozens of routine fundraisers held on Capitol Hill each day.

“Do you want to do it in a 30-second grip-and-grin at the Capitol Hill Club with hordes of other people or do you want to do it in a more relaxed setting where you can spend time with the Member?” asked Republican lobbyist Dan Cohen, who helps organize golf and ski trips for Oxley and Smith.

“Why do you do a ski event? Because people want to ski,” added another Republican fundraiser. “It sells itself.”

Ski trips are far from the only unusual fundraising events that have proliferated as the chase for hard dollars intensifies.

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) sponsors an annual fundraiser during Albuquerque’s popular Balloon Fiesta in October; Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) brings supporters to NASCAR’s Indianapolis 500; and last month House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) began leading a trip to Hawaii for those willing to pony up $5,000. As the weather warms, lawmakers and fundraisers plan to tee off at scores of golf fundraisers around the country.

In addition to creating renewed competition for hard dollars, fundraisers say that campaign finance legislation also has made such events more profitable for some campaigns.

Because hard dollars are more valuable, campaigns are no longer expected to pick up the tab for many costs associated with the trips, such as hotel rooms, lift tickets and ski rentals.

“One side benefit of campaign finance reform is that we are looking rationally at our expenditures. It has made fundraisers more profitable,” said Cohen. “There is now very little overhead associated with these fundraisers. We are not wasting our money. We have become more efficient businesses. So you can actually raise more.”

Two years ago, most campaigns charged $3,000 to $5,000 for a three-day, all-expenses-paid weekend complete with hotel rooms, lift tickets and meals.

Today, campaigns charge between $1,000 and $3,000, but typically only include a day of skiing and a meal or two.

“People are invited to stay on their own and ski on their own,” said Cohen. “So the campaign can charge less. But they gross more because the costs are less.”

Added Mattoon: “When you give them $5,000, they net $5,000.”

Of course, another benefit of the ski fundraisers is that they are enjoyable.

“They are partly about fundraising and partly about bringing people’s families together,” said Peter Fischer, a top aide to Crapo. “People can get a bit of a vacation. The idea is that it is supposed to be fun.”

Having fun was the theme of Burns’ trip to Big Sky last weekend.

The 75 to 100 supports who attend the event were treated to unseasonably warm temperatures, sunny skies and even a little fresh powder for what turned out to be one of the best ski weekends of the year.

Those who brought their skis hit Big Sky’s 63-inch base of packed powder and groomed trails alongside a few Republican Senators Burns brought along for the trip, including Nickles and Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.).

The four-day trip included a welcoming reception, breakfast, one-day ski pass and lunch at the exclusive Yellowstone Club, the world’s only private ski club.

Though he stayed clear of the slopes, Burns led a 60-mile snowmobile tour of Yellowstone National Park that included a stop at Old Faithful.

“Different people come every year,” Burns said of the trip. “They see our state. It’s a pretty part of the country. It’s just a real nice outing.”