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Boehner Takes Up Money Challenge

One of Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) most frequent talking points is that House Republicans must “earn” their way back to a majority. In financial terms, it will be no easy task. As the party leader — and currently the No. 1 contributor to the National Republican Congressional Committee — much of that responsibility is on Boehner.

A Roll Call analysis of Boehner’s political activity this year indicates solid fundraising numbers. As recently as Thursday, he hosted a packed crowd at the 15th annual “Boehner Beach Party” at Cantina Marina in Washington, D.C., that raised $135,000, according to his office — a 50 percent increase over the $90,000 haul it raised in 2006 when Boehner was the Majority Leader.

When asked to account for the increase in spite of his demotion, Boehner summed it up this way: “We’re in the minority and we have to work harder.” For his part, Boehner is leading his party in the money race, and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) noted last week that he is “the most potent fundraiser on our side.”

Yet Boehner faces two key challenges right now: unimpressive fundraising from the House Republican Conference as a whole, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The former he is working to increase. “It’s been consistent with what we’ve had in the past but it needs to improve,” Boehner said in an interview Monday, estimating that 60 percent of the Conference is doing their part to raise money. The Democrats’ campaign operation currently has a $17.5 million cash-on-hand advantage over the NRCC. “We’re working on it,” he said.

The latter is beyond his control. Boehner’s counterpart on the other side of the aisle is a fundraising phenom — Pelosi is expected to raise at least $25 million in the 2008 cycle, a stunning figure greater than the combined dues expected from the other eight Members of the Democratic leadership team.

“Given the Democrats’ failure to produce results, the Speaker is going to have to raise a whole lot more than that to keep the majority,” Boehner responded.

While the Ohioan is unlikely to match Pelosi in total contributions, by NRCC standards he’s exceeding expectations.

The NRCC does not use a dues system, but rather tasks lawmakers with raising money for its varied fundraising programs. Boehner said he does not have a lump-sum target and said it was still “up in the air” for what he will contribute for the 2008 cycle.

“He’s done tremendous things,” Cole said, noting that Boehner co-chaired the annual NRCC March Dinner this year with Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), an unusual move for a party leader. “He wanted to send a strong signal,” Cole said. “[Fundraising] is very important and we’re lucky because the leader knows it’s very important.” The dinner netted $6 million for the NRCC.

Cole also noted that Boehner’s well-known and longtime ties to the business and K Street communities have been fruitful. “No one understands downtown better than John Boehner,” Cole said.

Republican lobbyists interviewed for this story observed that Boehner distanced himself from downtown after returning to leadership last year. Stresses of the new job — and a wariness of appearing too cozy with special interests as a series of lobbying scandals rocked the party — contributed to the shift, these lobbyists said.

“He’s not the sort of K Street guy like he used to be,” one GOP lobbyist said. “It’s not the same middle-1990s John, when he was chairman of the Thursday Group and Conference chairman. He is thinking in bigger, strategic terms. He is being smart and discreet, and he’s not spending a lot of time taking meetings with outside friends.”

But if Boehner is less accessible than he once was, Republican lobbyists aren’t complaining. They say his fundraising cache remains strong because he is widely perceived as an effective leader.

“People feel that he’s got the right personality at the right time for this,” said veteran GOP lobbyist Ed Kutler. “If you talk to 95 percent of the Republican folks downtown, they say he’s on the right track in terms of getting together a coherent plan for the Republicans, taking the right legislative approaches, and getting the mechanics ready for 2008.”

Lobbyists said the post-scandal chill between House Republicans and their downtown allies is beginning to thaw. Next Tuesday, GOP leaders are hosting lobbyists at the Capitol Hill Club for a wide-ranging briefing on the political landscape. Lobbyists said the event is the first of its kind this year.

House Republican leaders “are settling into their own a little bit,” said Sam Geduldig, a lobbyist who headed business outreach for House GOP last year. “They’re starting to feel comfortable and they’ve got victories to talk about. They’re trying to strike a match and catch some energy and spread it around.”

For his part so far, Boehner has taken a methodical approach to gathering political checks, often organizing events targeting specific industry sectors. The appeals have gone out to traditional Republican allies — but also Democratic-friendly industries.

On June 14, for example, he made a rare pitch for support to the entertainment industry at a breakfast hosted by the Motion Picture Association of America, according to a lobbyist in attendance. And this fall, he will headline an event raising money from tech companies.

So far this year, Boehner has raised about $638,000 from political action committees for Friends of John Boehner, his official campaign committee, compared with $829,500 at the same point in 2006 when he was Majority Leader, and $141,200 in 2005.

“I don’t think his pitch is any different, because it was never, ‘Hey, I’m in the majority and you should contribute to me because I can get things done for you,’” said Bruce Gates, a lobbyist and longtime Boehner friend who until last year served as treasurer of the Freedom Project, Boehner’s leadership PAC. “It’s ‘I have a vision for this country that involves electing a certain kind of people to Congress. And I don’t need the money myself, but I can galvanize a group of people to contribute to a central fund.’”

Boehner’s political operation also is working on a Web relaunch of the Freedom Project that is expected to be unveiled in early fall. Aide Don Seymour recently left the Minority Leader’s press shop to work full-time at the leadership PAC for the launch.

While the details are still being worked out, aides describe it as a “one-stop shop” to enhance grass-roots fundraising and drive the Republican message.

“We’re building an extensive fundraising, communications and grass-roots effort focused on benefiting House Republican incumbents and candidates,” Boehner said.

The Freedom Project has raised $563,000 this year and Boehner has maxed out contributions to more than 40 House incumbents. His campaign committee has given the NRCC $285,000 and has $1 million in cash on hand.

Boehner’s office also said they have raised another $2.8 million directly for the NRCC, incumbents and candidates.

One veteran Republican fundraiser noted that a litmus test for a leader’s fundraising ability is his appeal outside of the Beltway and ability to travel to Members’ districts. Former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) notably traveled to nearly 200 districts in an election cycle, and Boehner is frequently on the road. He is currently on tap to headline events for 18 incumbents in 11 states this August, and his office estimates the events will raise a half-million dollars.

“As a Republican leader I think it’s important to help build grass-roots support for House incumbents and candidates who are committed to national security, fiscal responsibility and limited government,” Boehner said, “I’ve got to continue to do that.”

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