Democratic Fundraising Under Pressure

Posted March 10, 2009 at 6:27pm

When it comes to fundraising, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) likes to lead by example. This year is no different.

Two months into the new Congress, Pelosi has already banked more than $2.3 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, according to a committee fundraising tally. That amount represents nearly one-tenth of the $25 million that Pelosi has committed to raising for the DCCC over the two-year cycle.

The Speaker has also contributed $250,000 toward the $800,000 she owes in party dues, as have House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.).

The early DCCC contributions represent an effort by House Democratic top brass to compel their Members to start swallowing their dues medicine in small doses. The leaders are urging their colleagues to pony up early and often to help build a bulwark against what could be heavy midterm losses.

“It gets more difficult in terms of competing interests later in the cycle,— said Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), DCCC vice chairman for finance. “It always makes sense for people to do as much as they can up front and do it in installments.—

A DCCC memo to lawmakers last week noted that all but two newly elected presidents since Abraham Lincoln saw their party lose seats in their first midterm election, with an average loss of 30 seats. Democrats have the added burden of retiring $16.5 million in debt, according to the memo.

“We enter this cycle with potentially 50 threatened incumbents. The financial cost of mounting this defense will be staggering,— it said.

The leaders themselves are making staggered progress toward early dues payments.

Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) has paid just $50,000 of his $450,000 obligation.

In that second tier of leadership, all of whom owe the same amount, only Steering and Policy Committee Co-Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) has contributed less than Larson — nothing so far, according to the tally.

DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) has paid $250,000, and Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) and Steering and Policy Committee Co-Chairman George Miller (Calif.) have each contributed $100,000.

Of the exclusive committee chairmen, Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (Calif.) is the only gavel holder to make a dent in his $500,000 tab. Waxman has contributed $100,000 so far.

Of the 17 non-exclusive committee chairmen, only Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), who runs House ethics, has broken the seal on her dues obligation, handing the DCCC $50,000 toward her $250,000 target. And none of the seven Chief Deputy Majority Whips has contributed yet.

So far, only a handful of Democrats outside the top ranks have cut checks to the DCCC. Rep. Brad Sherman (Calif.) owns the distinction of being the first rank-and-file Member to pay his dues in full, having forked over $200,000 to the campaign committee, the tally shows.

Sherman remains a stark exception. Altogether, Democrats have contributed $1.76 million to the DCCC this year, despite closing 2008 with more than $120 million collectively in Members’ re-election accounts, figures from the tally show.

It’s not unusual for lawmakers to be slow shaking off the fundraising hangover from the previous election cycle. But Democratic strategists said this year poses new problems for the majority: The party needs a pile of cash to protect an unwieldy roster of incumbents from marginal districts, and it needs to raise that money during an economic meltdown.

One Democrat familiar with DCCC operations said the campaign committee is encouraging lawmakers “to contribute to the DCCC early and also make sure their own house is in order early, for two reasons: because the best defense is a good offense and because we recognize the challenges of the cycle.—

With contributors back home reeling from the one-two punch of donor fatigue and the recession, Democrats are working overtime in town to shake loose what cash they can from lobbyists still relatively flush.

On Tuesday night, three top Democrats — Crowley, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.) and Rep. Allen Boyd (Fla.) — hosted separate events at the Fleetwood Mac concert at the Verizon Center, the DCCC’s schedule of fundraising events shows. And today alone, lobbyists looking to contribute can choose from a menu of 19 events.

After lawmakers wrap up votes, contributors can get a jump on the holiday by joining Rep. Mike Capuano (Mass.) for a “Boston Style St. Paddy’s Day— reception at a Capitol Hill townhouse. Or join Rep. Earl Blumenauer (Ore.) for the “Blumenauer Comedy Event— at the Washington Court Hotel. Or join Rep. Lynn Woolsey (Calif.) for a wine and chocolate reception at the UPS townhouse on the Hill. Or head to the Verizon Center, where Rep. Gregory Meeks (N.Y.) and friends will be watching the Wizards take on the New Orleans Hornets.

How much of that cash will quickly find its way to the DCCC is another question. At this stage in the cycle, many lawmakers are making sure they have ample funds in their own coffers — a task that even safer Members will look to complete before fulfilling their obligations to the party, one Democratic fundraiser said.

A new point system the committee added at Clyburn’s request to recognize lawmakers who participate in political activities beyond fundraising is not expected to affect the DCCC’s bottom line, because those points will not count toward Members’ dues burdens.

House Democrats aren’t the only ones eyeing their campaign committee’s early fundraising, however.

During a closed-door meeting of the House Republican Conference on Tuesday morning, Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) stressed the importance of winning the March 31 special election in New York’s 20th district, and said it was time for Members who hadn’t contributed to the race to “stand up,— GOP sources said.

The Republican candidate, New York Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco, attended the meeting at the Capitol Club and thanked Members who contributed already, but asked for more funds to carry him through the end of the race. So far, GOP lawmakers have given the House hopeful $175,000.

Rep. Peter Roskam (Ill.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s annual March fundraising dinner, told Conference attendees that while they are getting closer to their goal of $5 million, there are still members of the “goose egg caucus— who have yet to participate.

Charlotte Wester contributed to this report.