K Street, PACs not eager to attend in-person fundraisers yet

As events go virtual, some donors ask if they'll be comped in the future

Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., left, talks with ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., prior to a committee hearing earlier this month.  (Shawn Thew/EPA via Pool)
Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., left, talks with ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., prior to a committee hearing earlier this month. (Shawn Thew/EPA via Pool)
Posted May 14, 2020 at 12:11pm

After a monthslong hiatus, some lawmakers have begun inviting lobbyists and D.C. insiders to in-person fundraisers as soon as next month, and that isn’t going over so well on K Street.  

Many lobbyists and corporate executives, cloistered in their home offices during the coronavirus pandemic, said they were unlikely to sign up for in-person political events in the coming weeks — and some were downright dismayed that lawmakers would even send invites for so near in the future. Others, though, said they long for a return to the intimacy of real-life events that virtual coffees, lunches and happy hours can’t replace. 

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Lawmakers, mostly Republicans, who have events on the calendar say they’re monitoring public health guidance closely and recognize that such plans may be more aspirational than realistic in the coming weeks and months, even as they’re eager to jump-start the in-person political fundraising circuit. 

“It could be a virtual event at the end of the day,” said Luke Holland, chief of staff to Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma.  

Inhofe’s campaign operation emailed a fundraising invite this week to would-be donors for an event planned June 15 at the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s Capitol Hill headquarters. The event included a notice that it could ultimately move online, depending on the COVID-19 situation. 

One lobbyist invited to upcoming events said, on condition of anonymity so as not to harm relationships with lawmakers, that it was appalling to see such solicitations now, adding, “Why expose members of the lobbying community to unnecessary risk?”

Sheltering in fundraising?

Washington is under a stay-at-home order until at least June 8, extended this week from the previous May 15 order. Under the order, restaurants are only allowed to provide meals through take-out or delivery.    

“We’ll assess it when we get back from Memorial Day,” Holland said. “We’d love to be able to do an in-person event, outside, with food. But none of us know what the world’s going to look like. We will not do anything that’s not safe.”

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In addition to the Inhofe event, Republican Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri has invited donors to a June 11 fundraiser at the D.C. restaurant Trattoria Alberto, with a $2,500 price of admission for political action committees that want to be listed as hosts or $1,000 to attend. Individual donors are to pay $1,000 to serve as hosts or $500 to attend. That dinner event is to feature Republican Rep. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina as a special guest, according to an invitation provided by a K Street lobbyist. 

Chris Connelly, Hartzler's chief of staff, said in an email that any fundraising events “are contingent on the Mayor’s stay at home directive and DC regulations. Although the event has not yet been officially postponed, we are not actively promoting the event and it appears very unlikely that it will occur as scheduled.”

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, who has a tough reelection ahead, has solicited lobbyists and others to attend a June 10 evening event featuring South Dakota GOP Sen. Mike Rounds as a featured guest. 

The invitation acknowledges the uncertainty of planning during the pandemic: “We are closely monitoring the COVID-19 developments and will adhere to the CDC guidelines. If it is not possible to gather in person for this event, we will host a virtual meeting and plan an in-person gathering at a later date.”  

Reopening debate

The nation’s political divisions have been evident in the debate about when and how to restart businesses and social interactions, with many Republicans calling for a speedier reopening and Democrats urging lengthier shelter-in-place directives until infection rates subside. Still, many K Street denizens say they’re assessing guidance from public health officials.  

GOP lobbyist T.J. Petrizzo, who runs the Petrizzo Group and is a frequent campaign donor, said K Street like the rest of America should “get back to work as we did pre-COVID-19 as soon as possible and appropriate from a public health perspective. These video conferencing fundraisers are simply not the same as in-person engagement.”

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Micaela Isler, executive director of the National Association of Business Political Action Committees, said more PACs have been embracing the virtual fundraising opportunities. 

Though donors are eager to return to some semblance of their past in-person routines, “the reality of that is going to be a challenge for the foreseeable future,” she said.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out an email Thursday reminding lawmakers that the campaign arm’s offices, including its fundraising call room, remain closed.

Online shindigs

Democratic fundraiser Michael Fraioli, who runs Fraioli & Associates, said his clients have shifted to virtual events. 

“I have not had a single person ask about scheduling an in-person event,” he said. “What folks are asking is if they participate in the virtual event now, can they be comped to an in-person event down the road? The answer is yes.” He added that the RSVP rate would “dictate whether they do in-person or virtual” fundraisers. 

Lobbyists and PAC community insiders say the interest in attending in-person events is likely to remain depressed for a while. 

“I’d be surprised if in-person fundraisers get much traction, even later this summer,” said Kristin Brackemyre, director of PAC and government relations for the Public Affairs Council.

“Even if some lobbyists do want to attend, most companies and associations are under strict work-from-home and other safety measures for the foreseeable future,” she said. “I don’t see those being lifted until mid- to late summer at this point. Perhaps some very small events may occur, but right now the PAC community is focused on other virtual alternatives to connect with the candidates they support. The feeling is this could be the case even into the fall months.”

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