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Lobbyists’ ‘Team’ Effort: Now Six for Six

In early 2004, former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) had a problem.

To be competitive in his campaign for a Senate seat, Thune needed to raise money from K Street. But business interests were skittish about supporting the opponent of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), whose post gave him significant influence over legislation. If the incumbent pulled out a victory in the end, Thune’s backers on K Street could suffer.

Enter “Team Thune.” Led by some of K Street’s top political operatives, Team Thune undertook the arduous task of convincing lobbyists that Thune was a good bet because his Senate bid was, in the words of his campaign manager, “real.”

This early push gave Thune the credibility he needed. Equally important, it raked in $456,000 — and on K Street, money chases money.

“It gave entities that might have wanted to hold back the confidence that this was a real effort,” said Dick Wadhams, who managed Thune’s winning campaign. “I can’t say enough about what they did for us.”

Such sentiments are becoming routine. Team Thune is one of just six such committees the business community has built around GOP Senate candidates in the last five-plus years. To date, none has lost.

And the candidates supported by these efforts haven’t been shoo-ins, either. They include Senators-elect Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who only pulled ahead of Democrat Erskine Bowles late in the 2004 campaign, and Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who was trailing Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone until Wellstone died in a plane crash just days before the 2002 election.

The other three beneficiaries were also engaged in nip-and-tuck races: Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) in 2004, Jim Talent (R-Mo.) in 2002 and the late Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) in 1998.

Participants in the team efforts do not claim full credit for the victories. But they also note that the teams have brought several elements to the winning campaigns — including extended grassroots networks and disciplined fundraising — that enable candidates to focus their energies where they are most urgently needed: campaigning.

“I don’t think you can quantify [the impact], except that the candidates feel like it helps,” said Lee Culpepper, the National Restaurant Association’s top lobbyist and a member of both Team Burr and Team Thune this cycle.

Dirk Van Dongen, the president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors — the group that has headquartered all but one of the team efforts since 2000 — said a key advantage is that the groups minimize the amount of time that a candidate must spend trolling for dollars inside Washington.

Here’s how the “team” effort works: Each of the 20 to 25 team members is given a target fundraising goal of $25,000, so a candidate can ordinarily count on a minimum of $400,000 from the group. Raising the same amount through the usual methods — say, netting $20,000 at meet-and-greets around the city — burns up a good deal of time. So a candidate backed by a “team” can spend that time on the campaign trail instead.

“It’s not rocket science so much as it is a higher degree of organization,” Van Dongen said.

Van Dongen attributed some of the business community’s success to the onset of new campaign finance rules this cycle that placed strict limits on contributions to party committees.

He said the restrictions prompted the business community to focus on beefing up their previously underfunded PACs and building new grassroots networks instead of the easier path of handing over unlimited soft-money contributions to the parties.

The National Federation of Independent Business, for instance, tapped its vast constituency of small- to medium-sized companies to boost the get-out-the-vote programs for Thune and Burr. The efforts included e-mails, faxes and picture-mail pieces to all federation members in North Carolina and South Dakota, plus a postcard reminder one week before the election and a phone call on Nov. 1.

On top of that, NFIB sent issue advocacy mailings — pieces that argued for medical malpractice reform and the establishment of association-run health plans — to 30,000 non-member business owners in both states. Those two issues were major themes of the Burr and Thune candidacies.

“Certainly overall, the business community has become more engaged — more involved with each succeeding cycle,” said NFIB lobbyist Dan Danner.

Even the businesses that declined to do partisan work in the contests nonetheless sought to get their employees registered and to the polls, Danner added. He characterized the new attitude as, “You better get involved in politics, or politics will run your business.”

To be sure, the concept of concentrating like-minded interests on behalf of a candidate is not exactly novel in the world of politics. Senate candidates, for instance, often have a “steering committee” made up of committed backers from the business community and elsewhere who pledge to raise money for the campaign.

And as a rule of thumb, a top-tier Democratic candidate for Congress can expect to collect at least $250,000 from organized labor right off the bat.

But Van Dongen and other organizers of the Republican teams say the difference is accountability. Team members are not just given targets to hit; each board member is assigned a tracking code, and they are graded on their performance in weekly fundraising reports that are distributed to the entire group.

This introduces an element of competition and peer pressure that tends to boost performance.

“One of the problems in this town is that if there is no accountability, everybody just tries to ride the gravy train,” Van Dongen said.

To ensure that the teams ran according to plan this cycle, Van Dongen selected the wholesaler group’s top lobbyist, Jim Anderson, to oversee Team Burr. Jade West, a former Senate GOP Conference chief of staff who is now a senior official at the wholesale association, ran the Thune team.

“The key is the follow-through,” Culpepper said.

The team concept and the emphasis on accountability were the brainchild of Coverdell, who had developed strong ties to business leaders during the fight over “Hillarycare” — the health care plan offered by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton during President Bill Clinton’s first term.

Team Coverdell marked the first run-through for what Van Dongen calls the “evergreen” approach, in which team members maintain their efforts on behalf of the candidate from the beginning of the contest to its end. It was a sharp departure from the traditional role of business interests in GOP campaigns: to show up at fundraisers and write checks.

“What we learned out of it was that there were tremendous advantages for the candidate in going from conception to election,” Van Dongen said.

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