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Big PAC Attack

Group Puts the ‘Fun’ Back In Fundraising

Fundraising in Washington can be mind-numbingly tedious work: To gather contributions, politicians have to hustle, throw events, get lobbyists to come, then get them to actually hand over what they promised to give.

The Bellwether Consulting Group, staffed entirely by women younger than 34, knows something else about fundraising: that it can be fun. In its two years of operation, the group has hosted events people wanted to attend — and delivered robust receipts to its clients.

The firm’s marquee client last cycle was Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who was campaigning for an open Senate seat. Bellwether helped Burr raise $3.8 million in Washington contributions — a sum that made him the top Republican fundraiser from Washington, D.C.-based PACs last year.

“We tried some new and fun approaches, and it paid off,” Bellwether co-founder Monica Notzon said during an interview in the firm’s sleek offices, housed in a converted Pabst Blue Ribbon warehouse near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

For Burr, the Bellwether approach spawned events like Burr-la-palooza, an event on a downtown rooftop that drew not just the usual suspects from K Street but also some younger faces, lured by the $25 ticket prices.

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) was another client. Sessions — engaged in a tough redistricting-related match against Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) — finished second only to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in PAC fundraising by House candidates.

All told, Bellwether raised more than $14 million for its 17 clients.

Notzon and partner Dana Harris Graham met when the two worked at the National Republican Congressional Committee. Notzon served as PAC director and national field director for the NRCC, while Graham was finance director for the committee’s then-chairman, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.).

It was at the NRCC that the two learned the nuts and bolts of PACs — how to organize and who to know.

“They made good relationships with the downtown crowd, which helped a lot,” said lobbyist John Green, who was Burr’s Washington steering committee chairman.

Now, the two are using their experience to create events that will stand out on the crowded calendar posted on the the NRCC’s Web site.

A scan of that list makes clear the thicket of events lobbyists have to navigate.

On Tuesday there’s a $1,000 birthday party for Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) and a $1,000 “Welcome to Washington” breakfast for Rep. Mike Sodrel (R-Ind.). On Wednesday, they’re invited to join Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.), a Bellwether client, for a $1,000 reception at the National Mining Association.

If they’re not too exhausted, they could also be invited to a steering committee meeting that night for Rep. Sue Kelly (R-N.Y.), or, for up to $2,000 per person, to join Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.) for a reception on the Hill.

And those are just the events on the House side.

While Bellwether arranges its fare share of big-ticket events, it also lightens up a candidate’s schedule with cheaper options.

“Gone are the days of the $2,000 dinner at the Capitol Hill Club,” Harris said. “Now, you’re gathering from the $25 donors, so we’re trying to bring new and young people to the events — people that haven’t been there before.”

Notzon and Harris, who have added five staffers since opening their doors, bill themselves as more than just party planners.

They begin with each client by developing a fundraising plan. That usually means parsing the client’s history, length of incumbency, and committee assignments.

In addition to planning a schedule of high-and low-dollar events, Bellwether puts together a phone-call program for its candidates.

Often calls are preceded by in-person meetings to establish a relationship. Then Bellwether eliminates the most awkward part of the conversation for candidates: having to ask for money. The group does that in a follow-up call.

“Part of our strategy is to eliminate the constant calling without a purpose,” Notzon said. “Lobbyists receive a couple hundred calls a week, so cold-calling usually doesn’t get you anywhere.”

When lobbyists do pledge to give, Bellwether holds them to their word.

“That’s hard to do,” said Bill Spencer, a lobbyist with the Associated Builders and Contractors. “You can’t be too heavy handed, but you have to get the money. They never leave any of it on the table.”

Notzon and Harris also try to tailor their fundraising campaign to the candidate’s personality. Burr, for example, hated making phone calls. At the same time, they said, he was “the hardest working man in Washington,” so they loaded his schedule with events and smaller face-to-face meetings.

“It meant we were often eating breakfast, lunch and dinner with him,” Harris said.

And when Democratic spin about Burr’s sinking prospects in the race threatened to cut off the spigot of PAC dollars in Washington, Notzon and Harris rushed out the counter-spin.

They flooded potential donors with news clippings, fundraising statements and poll numbers showing Burr’s strength, and they enlisted Sens. George Allen (R-Va.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) to appear at events and back them up.

“A big part of our job is disseminating information downtown and creating buzz,” Notzon said. “We find out who cares the most, and we keep them informed.”

The group has no standard reimbursement formula. Rather, it sometimes works on retainer and sometimes on commission. Officials with the group declined to discuss specifics.

Notzon and Harris insist that as they tend to their new clients — a list that includes Reps. Kennedy, Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) and Bobby Jindal (R-La.), and Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) — they won’t be aggressively courting the business of new Members.

Instead, they’re focusing on taking their now-Beltway-bound fundraising base national and kicking off a new wing of the firm that helps corporations develop their own PACs.

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