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NRCC’s Dinner Faces Reservations

The two-week push to collect cash for the National Republican Congressional Committee’s annual dinner next month is the latest headache for Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.), who already is grappling with Member retirements, an FBI investigation and an abysmal fundraising environment.

House Republicans will gather this morning at the Capitol Hill Club, where Cole is expected to make his final plea to Members for fundraising help before the March 12 dinner.

Earlier this year, Cole and the dinner chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), announced a goal of raising $7.5 million at the dinner, an increase from the NRCC’s $6 million goal in 2007.

One source said that as of the beginning of last week, $2.2 million had been raised and the goal was to get to $2.7 million by week’s end.

President Bush will headline the dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel.

An NRCC spokeswoman called the $7.5 million figure an “optimistic but realistic” goal and said Cole will stress to Members today that their involvement is pivotal to making it happen.

“The next two and a half weeks will be critical in reaching that goal,” NRCC spokeswoman Julie Shutley said.

Cole will push Members to make fundraising calls and also praise those Members who have been involved in the dinner effort.

For example, Texas GOP Reps. Pete Sessions, Jeb Hensarling, Sam Johnson, Joe Barton, Kenny Marchant and Michael Burgess are co-hosting a March 7 event scheduled in Dallas that will raise money toward the dinner’s fundraising goal. So far, more than $375,000 has been raised through that event.

“This shows that Texas fundraising is starting to turn around,” said Sessions’ chief of staff, Guy Harrison, asserting that it could be a bellwether for improved Republican fundraising elsewhere.

While the final two weeks before the dinner traditionally have seen the biggest push for dollars, fundraising in general has been sluggish and problematic for Republicans across the board this cycle. A well-connected GOP lobbyist said Member involvement, or lack thereof, also has hurt the party’s overall effort.

“The problem is that the Members aren’t making the calls,” the source said.

And even the calls that are being made aren’t as productive as they once were.

The source said a ranking member on a top committee, whom he declined to identify, made six or seven calls last week — calls that in previous years could have easily netted $25,000 each. This time, only one call proved fruitful with one person committing to raise money.

Another influential GOP lobbyist said he had not received as many calls asking for help with the dinner as he had in previous years.

“I haven’t had the frantic phone calls like I have had in the past,” the lobbyist said, adding that he had been contacted only twice so far, as opposed to getting as many as six or seven calls in the past.

Republican fundraising has been hit hard by depressed giving from the party’s activist base, who are less willing to open up their checkbooks because they are upset with party leaders over issues such as illegal immigration and spending.

Morale within the Republican Conference also is an issue that has affected NRCC fundraising.

Earlier this month, the NRCC announced that authorities were looking into financial “irregularities” that had been discovered in the committee’s records. The FBI is investigating the matter, and there is no evidence yet that money is missing from the NRCC coffers. Still, some Members are reluctant to give to the committee or fundraise on its behalf until a clearer picture of the matter emerges.

Also, today’s meeting will be the first time the GOP Conference has gathered since the 35-count indictment of Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) on extortion, money laundering and conspiracy charges was announced last week. In another blow to party morale, the GOP nominee in the race to succeed retiring Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.) abruptly abandoned his bid last week, further improving Democratic chances of picking up the seat.

Through the end of January, the NRCC had raised more than $53.3 million this cycle. In contrast, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had raised more than $71.2 over the same time period.

But the NRCC was saddled with a large debt left over from the 2006 cycle and worked aggressively to pay it down last year, making the cash-on-hand difference even more stark.

The NRCC had just $6.4 million in the bank at the end of January, while the DCCC had almost $35.5 million.

Senate Republicans also are lagging behind their Democratic counterparts in fundraising this cycle. The Republican National Committee is the only federal GOP campaign entity that regularly outraises its Democratic counterpart.

However, not all fundraising news is bad for the GOP.

The Republican Governors Association announced Monday that they raised $10.6 million through their annual dinner last night, a fundraising record for the event.

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