In a move that bucks a 30-year tradition, House and Senate Republican campaign leaders have agreed not to continue their annual joint fundraising dinner next year.
Known as the President’s Dinner, Republicans in both chambers have traditionally joined forces every June to rake in cash for the National Republican Congressional Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee. Even when they did not control the White House, Senate and House Republicans have put on the major fundraising event — which annually raises tens of millions for the two committees and is attended by thousand of lobbyists, Members and out-of-town donors.
But NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) and NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) confirmed through spokesmen Wednesday that the dinner will be discontinued next year because it is no longer an efficient use of the committees’ time and money. Without control of the White House or Congress, the committee operatives said they are looking for new ways to raise funds.
“It’s stating the obvious, but the ultimate goal for any fundraising event is to put money in the bank to spend in next year’s elections,— NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said. “However, both committees have realized the joint dinner model isn’t as cost-effective when you don’t have a president in the White House or a nominee on the presidential campaign trail. So for the time being, we’ve decided to look at other fundraising options that will serve to both energize the base and raise the money needed to win back seats in both chambers next year.—
The GOP committees announced that this year’s June 8 dinner raised about $14.45 million, but as with most large fundraising dinners for the campaign committees, much of the haul comes in via fulfilling previous donation pledges or other fundraising efforts for that month. Over the course of April, May and June, the NRCC reported raising $8.62 million and the NRSC reported raising more than $11 million.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) was the keynote speaker at this year’s dinner, stepping in for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who declined to speak after it was announced she would headline the event.Without a prominent party leader to headline the dinner, which this year drew about 2,000 people, both committees emphasized that a sit-down dinner had become too costly to be an efficient event.
“The NRSC has been a great partner not only on the fundraising front, but on a variety of fronts, and we plan to continue working together as we move toward our shared goal of winning in 2010,— NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said. “At this time, however, both committees have come to the agreement that the Senate-House dinner is simply not an effective use of resources when there isn’t a presidential nominee headlining the event.—
But even when President Bill Clinton was in the White House, the dinner continued to be a draw for grass-roots activists. When Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, the dinner was a popular event for guests to meet the new Members.
Republican media consultant Ed Brookover, who served as executive director of the NRCC in the 1990s, recalled the dinner was “huge— in 1995 because out-of-town and local guests wanted to meet newly minted Speaker Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (Kan.).
“Taking over Congress was fresh and exciting, so the combination of the Washington, D.C., donors wanting to give to us and the outside leaders being excited about seeing the new Members of Congress, made this event attractive,— Brookover said.
It’s not clear when the President’s Dinner tradition began, but GOP lobbyist Doyce Boesch recalled attending the event in the early 1980s. As a top aide to then-Sen. Don Nickles (Okla.), Boesch recalled sitting at then-Rep. Dick Cheney’s (Wyo.) table to hear newly elected President Ronald Reagan speak.
“When you have a sitting president, it’s easier to draw people, new contributors from across the country,— Boesch said. “And when you don’t have the White House, it’s more inside-the-Beltway. And you have a lot of costs in that involved.—
Without unified political direction coming from the White House, the two committees have developed different fundraising strategies in the past couple of years.
The NRSC, for instance, often pitches donors on the fact that they need to win one Senate seat to regain their ability to filibuster Democrats’ 60-seat majority. The Senate committee has also worked with measured success to build its major donor base in recent cycles while the NRCC has traditionally relied more on small-dollar contributions.
It’s also clear that both committees are gearing toward more regional fundraising events, such as sending a handful of House Members or Senators to a city to fundraise for a day on the weekend.
The roadshows are a new way to attract many donors across the country who used to travel annually to the dinner, but attendance has dropped off because the president no longer headlines the event.
According to several lobbyists familiar with the event’s organization, the dinner now mostly consists of local guests who see this kind of event as commonplace.
A Republican lobbyist active in campaigns recalled that guests had very little interest in actually eating dinner in recent years, and often full steaks are left on plates because people duck out before the big speech begins.
“You’re going to raise it no matter what, so why would you raise it on a dinner that no one appreciates?— asked the lobbyist.
What’s more, hosting an event at the Washington Convention Center can be quite costly. The building is one of only a few structures in town that can hold more than 3,000 people, and the committees are charged with the arduous task of building a ballroom from scratch — a process that can take up the two days before the event and at least one day afterward.
The committees have made their best attempt to cut costs in recent years, for example giving out wine glasses instead of gift bags for guests.
In the latter years of the Bush administration, the committees spent up to $1 million on overhead for the dinner, according to a source familiar with costs. In the early years of the Bush administration, much of that overhead cost could be written off as in-kind donations. But since the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act took effect in 2002 and banned soft money donations, the committees have had a harder time justifying the overhead cost.
“There’s a good chunk on overhead, and a lot of money comes in anyway. The dinner is the excuse to get it in,— said former Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), who led the NRCC from 1998 to 2002.
Before the McCain-Feingold law took effect, the committees could write off anything from floral arrangements to party bags and rented space.
“Your costs have gone up a lot and your take is gone,— Davis said. “It makes it a lot tougher. But you can make a difference on the grass roots, through the Internet. That’s the equalizer. The fundraising paradigm has changed.—