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Governors Have Freedom to Party

It’s common knowledge among political insiders that this year’s national conventions aren’t going to measure up to the largess of 2004.

With the struggling economy, more stringent ethics rules and the near-certainty of intense media scrutiny, a lot of companies and lobby shops have opted out of throwing bashes filled with free alcohol and big-name musical artists.

Not everyone is suffering, though.

The Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association, which have few restrictions placed on their convention and fundraising activities, say their campaign coffers will be flush with cash.

The DGA expects to raise a record-breaking $20 million or more, while the RGA hopes to best the $22 million it received in 2007.

One of the biggest reasons for the sea change: The revamped lobbying law makes it harder for companies that retain lobbyists to hold parties at the national conventions.

“The rules say members cannot participate at events [that honor them] if it is paid for directly by an entity that employs or retains lobbyists,” said Cleta Mitchell, an ethics lawyer at Foley & Lardner.

The RGA and the DGA are not registered to lobby. And because they are organized as 527s, are tax-exempt and do not fall under Federal Election Commission regulation, they can accept unlimited amounts of soft money.

Many companies are deciding to work through the groups rather than holding events on their own.

Both the RGA and DGA offer donors several convention packages, some of which can cost up to $250,000. In exchange, there are event tickets, floor privileges and a chance to hobnob with lawmakers.

Money that’s not spent on the convention or money contributed at convention fundraisers can later be used for elections. The organizations must follow state laws when contributing to gubernatorial candidates.

Despite having only 11gubernatorial races in play this cycle, the DGA is expecting to surpass its $18.6 million fundraising record from 2006, when there were 36 gubernatorial races.

“We are on track to break our all-time record,” DGA spokesman Brian Namey said. “I am very confident that we will be in a very good position going into the second half of the year.”

The RGA set its own fundraising record in 2006, when it brought in $27 million. And it is intent on rolling over as much as it can for future battles.

“It used to be the RGA and DGA spent every dollar [they] raised, but we came to the conclusion that it was not the most [practical] way to do it,” RGA spokesman Chris Schrimpf said. “What we’ve done is we make tough decisions this year and last year and put money into races where we can win.”

All gubernatorial races are on a four-year cycle, with the exception of New Hampshire and Vermont, which elect their governors every two years.

Last year, the RGA held $9 million of its funds to help in upcoming gubernatorial contests.

This year, the organization is looking to carry as much money as possible over for the 2010 elections, according to Schrimpf, when 36 states will elect governors.

This cycle the RGA is focused on three races: the open seat in Missouri, where Gov. Matt Blunt (R) is not running for re-election; in Washington state, where Republican Dino Rossi is set to run again against incumbent Gov. Christine Gregoire; and an open contest in North Carolina, where Charlotte Mayor Patrick McCrory is running against Democratic Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue.

In order to raise their profiles and bring attention to the races, both groups are planning multiple events during their conventions.

In addition to daily breakfasts, lunches and dinners in Minneapolis, the RGA will host a “state fair” party at Mill City Museum on Sept. 3 with a major, but so far undisclosed, country music star.

Most of the events will be focused on governors and members of the RGA, but other events could honor other people, Schrimpf said.

He declined to say whether Members of Congress or specific delegations would be honored.

The DGA will focus on Democratic governors during the convention and will coordinate two major events. The first event, on Aug. 25, will be a “Rocky Mountain Salute to Governors” at Six Flags Elitch Gardens.

Near the convention center, the association will have the run of the place. On Aug. 27, the DGA will rent out a couple of floors of the Wynkoop Brewing Co.

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