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RFK: New Fundraising Venue

When President Bush throws out the first pitch at the Nationals’ home opener Thursday night, a host of dignitaries, politicians and Capitol Hill staff will be on hand to watch the official return of baseball to Washington, D.C., after 34 years.

None of them, however, will be watching the game in luxury at an official Congressional fundraiser. But don’t mistake the opening night’s lack of trolling for campaign cash for a missed opportunity — there will be plenty of others during the 81 home games this season.

With the return of baseball to the nation’s capital, fundraisers now have yet another venue for events — one that is a quick hop from the Capitol.

So far, a handful of House Republicans are the only Members with Nationals fundraisers scheduled.

Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) will be the first Congressional lawmaker to hold a campaign event at newly renovated Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

His inaugural baseball fundraiser includes a mid-day luncheon at the Capitol Hill Club on Thursday in honor of the Nationals’ home opener and then viewing the team’s Saturday home game against the Arizona Diamondbacks in one of the stadium’s made-over box suites.

While many fans, familiar with viewing Washington Redskins games in the 44-year-old venue, have expressed skepticism that the updated stadium will offer true luxury suites, those who have gotten a preview say they are the real deal.

“The stadium actually looks great,” said Carolyn Machado, a GOP fundraiser who counts Hayes among her clients. “People are saying, ‘Oh, it’s putting lipstick on a pig.’ I don’t think so. I think they’ve done a very good job. The seats look great. They put all brand new carpeting in these suites and they’re putting couches and furniture in. And I think they have done a good job given what they’re working with to make it a fun time for people going out there.”

The nine or so suites currently offered at RFK are on the mezzanine level in center field. The one that Machado is using is close to the left field line and near the bullpen.

“You will be in perfect position for heckling the center fielder,” Machado said.

A suite includes an indoor reception area with glass doors that open up to a two-tiered box filled with modular seating. The moveable, folding chairs make it so that “almost every seat is a good seat,” Machado said. One level is under covering while the other is out in the open.

Machado said last week that the Hayes event was almost sold out and that she expects all seats will be gone by Thursday.

While fundraisers might be apprehensive to try something new at first, the venue’s popularity will only grow once home games are under way and the suites are in use, Machado predicted.

“I think that’s something we’ll look at doing as the season goes on,” said Tim Baker, with the GOP firm Keelen Communications.

Aside from the handful of suites at RFK, the premium “black diamond” section located behind home plate may also be used as a venue for smaller, more intimate fundraising events.

Machado said she is thinking about scheduling a high-dollar fundraiser for Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) later this summer in the black diamond section. Those premium seats come with special passes that allow access to a club above center field.

One benefit for fundraisers who use the venue now is the potential for getting preferential treatment when the city’s new baseball stadium, complete with dozens of luxury boxes and suites, opens a few years from now.

“When that stadium is built these are the folks who are going to get first dibs at some of those better locations,” Machado said. “And so maybe holding your breath for a few years is going to be all worth it.”

A handful of other Republicans are also taking advantage of baseball’s return to D.C. with scheduled RFK fundraisers already on the books. On April 19, Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) is hosting a fundraiser at the 7:05 p.m. Nationals/Florida Marlins game. Ticket prices are $1,000 for individuals and $1,250 for PACs.

The next day, Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) and donors will watch the Nationals host the Atlanta Braves, with special guest Financial Services Chairman Mike Oxley (R-Ohio).

Oxley, the GOP manager for the Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game, will hold his own event at RFK in June. The “9th Annual Oxley Ballgame,” which will feature the Nationals versus the Oakland Athletics and a surprise VIP guest, is slated for June 9. Ticket prices (including buffet) range from $5,000 for steering committees to $500 for individuals.

Rob Jennings, a PAC fundraiser and event planner with American Event Consulting, has purchased one of RFK’s suites for 10 games. He said the best draw for fundraisers is the ability to offer diehard (and possibly homesick) sports fans a chance to get an up-close view of their beloved hometown teams.

He has booked Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.) for a June 29 home game versus the Pittsburgh Pirates and Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.) for a July 19 game against the Colorado Rockies.

He still has some open dates, though, including matchups with Houston, Atlanta, Colorado and the Chicago Cubs. He isn’t too worried about selling them, although he admitted it might be harder if enthusiasm for the relocated team slumps after this initial excitement.

“That’s why I don’t have any [events] planned for September,” he said.

As Nationals’ fever builds throughout the city, one potential sticking point is the $50 limit on the Congressional gift ban. A Nationals’ spokeswoman, Chartese Berry, said every seat in the stadium costs less than $50. But party planners believe that each seat in a suite costs more than that.

Jennings estimated that tickets could cost as much as $120-$141 per person in a suite, including catering.

“Lobbyists are going to have a tough time inviting Hill staffers,” he said. “They’re going to have to sit in the cheap seats” if they accept tickets that cost less than $50.

And for those who are accepting tickets for seats in one of the suites, “people are more than happy if they can get their hand on a ticket to reimburse,” Machado said. “They want to go.”

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