The subject line of a recent email solicitation from Rep. Elissa Slotkin’s campaign captures this week’s fundraising scene perfectly: “You’re about to be inundated. Sorry in advance.”
With the second quarter fundraising deadline looming on Sunday, lawmakers are sounding the alarms for their donors — making pleas to far-flung, small-dollar givers online and reliable contributors from K Street’s lobbying community to help them boost their numbers.
Even though lawmakers and their challengers still have 17 months before the 2020 elections, the second quarter of this year can be pivotal for incumbents looking to scare away potential opponents in primaries or even the general election with impressive cash-in-hand totals.
The pace of fundraising in Washington this time of year can sometimes lead to events with questionable timing to congressional business. With limited days to legislate and to raise money, the overlap is easy to find.
House Democrats have this week scheduled 62 D.C. fundraisers from Monday to Friday, according to a list compiled by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The campaign arm for House Republicans has listed 56 such shindigs in that five-day period. Senators, too, have amassed their own circuit of events all week long.
“It just gets worse, if it’s possible; the intensity and volume level, the bombardment level just keeps going up,” said lobbyist Larry O’Brien, a decadeslong donor to Democrats. “The persistence and the intensity, it’s amazing. It’s nonstop.”
Slotkin, a freshman Michigan Democrat, declines donations from corporate political action committees and has no publicized downtown events scheduled this week, and that’s part of her plea to online donors. She’s one of almost 60 lawmakers, nearly all Democrats, who have pledged to reject contributions from the PACs of corporations.
“Other members can expect more than $250,000 per year in corporate contributions, but because Elissa stands firm in her pledge, she has to rely on grassroots donors like you,” her fundraising solicitation reads.
Corporate PACs are regular donors to both parties, but so are lobbyists and other political types in Washington, D.C., making this week — with Congress in session — a pivotal part of the money chase on K Street.
Lawmakers from both parties and both chambers have scheduled coffees, breakfasts, lunches, dinners and evening receptions for this week, according to the fundraising lists and invitations circulating among lobbyists and political consultants.
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn kicked off the workweek Monday evening with his annual South Carolina barbecue event with a $1,000 price tag for PACs and $250 for individuals, according to an invitation. The re-election campaign of Illinois Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood planned to raise campaign cash during a lunch Tuesday at D.C.’s Rosa Mexicano.
That evening, for those wishing to wallow in 1990s nostalgia, Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler scheduled a fundraiser at the New Kids on Block: The Mixtape Tour concert at Capital One Arena.
Some of the events take on an industry-specific twist. The campaign of Virginia GOP Rep. Ben Cline is holding a financial services industry breakfast Tuesday. Cline is not on the House Financial Services panel, but Republican Rep. Sean P. Duffy of Wisconsin is, and he’s promised as a special guest at the breakfast. House Financial Services has a markup scheduled this week on a bill to overhaul the U.S. Export Finance Agency and a measure to require carbon monoxide detectors in some federal housing.
Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the top Republican on the Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, has planned a transportation industry breakfast Thursday at the Capitol Hill Club, according to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s list of upcoming events.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a high-ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, raised eyebrows among lobbyists for holding a fundraiser earlier this month the day before the panel took up the fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill. Her office said no defense industry insiders attended the event.
Democrats, meanwhile, on the Transportation and Infrastructure panel’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials had planned to hold industry events, according to a notice on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee list, within the week of a June 20 hearing on “The State of the Rail Workforce.”
Rep. Daniel Lipinski, the Illinois Democrat who chairs that subcommittee, was to hold a rail industry luncheon at Capitol Hill’s Bistro Cacao on June 11, according to the listing of events, but his spokesman, Phil Davidson, said that event did not happen. Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat who is on the subcommittee, was to hold a transportation fundraising event on June 19. An aide to Lynch did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Not against the rules
Even when events coincide with official business, it really is just a matter of optics, not laws. Federal election laws do not prohibit fundraisers that take place near important congressional business. The Office of Congressional Ethics has probed the timing of fundraisers for both Democrats and Republicans in the past, but the House Ethics Committee has ruled in favor of the lawmakers who have collected checks even on the same day as a pivotal vote.
Fundraising events are usually planned weeks in advance, while hearings and votes often crop up on the calendar with only a few days notice.
“There’s a cottage industry in Washington of businesses who manage most of this fundraising for members, and they essentially just tell the members where to show up,” says Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, which advocates for an overhaul of campaign finance laws.
Lobbyist O’Brien says it falls on donors to scrutinize whether the timing of a fundraiser makes it worth skipping. “Ironically, in a sense what happens is, donors like me are actually sensitized to it,” O’Brien said. “We’ve looked at fundraising solicitations and have noted the event for that person juxtaposes to something that on behalf of a client we’re actively working on.”
After looking it over, “on occasion, the answer has been to pass it by,” he added.
Freshman lawmakers are expected to spend up to half of their time on fundraising, McGehee noted, while more senior members are expected to pony up to help their colleagues and party committees. It’s a grind that some ex-lawmakers cite when explaining their decision to retire.
Measure of success
The money chase may be even more intense because candidate campaigns must keep up with unaffiliated coffers, such as super PACs.
“The pressure to raise money is immense in part because super PACs and dark money groups are able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in campaigns,” said Patrick Burgwinkle, spokesman for End Citizens United, a group that tracks which lawmakers and candidates refuse PAC money.
Congressional candidates are hardly the only ones contending with big-money outside groups. Democratic presidential candidates may have even more on the line as the second quarter deadline approaches along with their first round of debates this week.
“Because the polls are so meaningless, fundraising numbers per quarter have become an interesting proxy for who’s actually succeeding,” says Alex Slater, founder of the D.C. public relations firm the Clyde Group, which is bundling donations for presidential contender Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
Slater, who is not a lobbyist, said after Buttigieg began to refuse donations from federal lobbyists after initially picking up support from the sector, grassroots interest in the candidate, even inside the Beltway, surged.
“There have been two small-donor events that turned into pseudo-rallies,” Slater said including one in D.C. and one in Alexandria, Virginia, recently. “It’s become way more democratized than we anticipated.”