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Despite Trips, No Downtime for Donors

The summer of a lobbyist might feature a jaunt to Martha’s Vineyard, a weekend getaway to the posh Greenbrier resort in West Virginia and excursions for sipping pinot in Portland and fly-fishing in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

It sounds like a tranquil, fanciful lifestyle, but downtime this is not.

The grueling pace of fundraising, even on an off-cycle year such as this one, does not slow as members of Congress look to fend off potential challengers and post big stockpiles of cash each quarter. The threat of outside money from super PACs looms, and lobbyists remain a major target of reliable campaign cash.

When Congress is in session, K Street denizens can book each day with breakfasts, coffees, lunches, receptions, ballgames and late-night soirees. And in preparation for summer respites, the invites are pouring in for out-of-town extravaganzas.

“Getting early money is critical, either to scare off a primary challenger or to fight a primary challenger,” said Republican Michael Herson, who runs American Defense International and is a high-dollar donor. “There is tremendous pressure to raise this money early.”

And much of the pressure falls to K Street.

Senate Democrats are defending more seats than their Republican counterparts. For those who are up next year, this will be their first cycle since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that helped fuel the explosion of super PACs.

“Lobbyists can almost serve as a counter to the outside money,” said Sarah Bryner, research director at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. “They’re nearby. They tend to support incumbents. So all of those factors make them likely to be prime early donors.”

Tony Podesta, a Democrat who runs the bipartisan Podesta Group and is a top donor and fundraiser for his party, said he will support all the senators from his side of the aisle who are up in 2014.

“We’ve done or have scheduled events with all of them,” he said. “Of course, the other half of the people in the firm are doing the same thing on the Republican side.”

The same is happening at other firms around town. Kelly Bingel, a partner at Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti and top donor, said she and her fellow Democratic lobbyists have been focused on raising money for in-cycle senators. “Among Democrats downtown, there is a really strong effort,” she said.

Podesta, who routinely donates the maximum amount legally permitted in hard money to candidates and party committees, said that with the entry of super PACs, the money scene has become more intense earlier in the cycle.

“It used to be if you outraised your opponents in the year before the election, and your opponent was not wealthy, you’d be safe,” Podesta said. “There’s almost no such thing as a safe Senate seat. If somebody comes in and puts $20 million from one person who happens to own a big casino company, you could be in for the race of your life.”

It’s not just senators who are up next year who are in the hunt for dollars, either. Some members of both parties fresh off victories in November already have mobilized their fundraising efforts for the next time — more than five years down the road.

“There’s nothing like a near-death experience to cause you to start raising money earlier,” Podesta noted.

For a lobbyist, the proximity and access to lawmakers at a fundraiser obviously helps boost their own cache with colleagues and clients. And that can ultimately translate into personal profits. But it doesn’t come cheap.

A pair of Democratic House members has scheduled a fundraiser to attend the Broadway hit “The Book of Mormon” at the Kennedy Center in July. One ticket — which includes a pre-show reception with Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., and James P. Moran, D-Va. — will cost you $1,000.

Skeet-shooting with Sen. Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, costs $500 for individuals and $1,000 for PACs. A Mets vs. Nationals game with Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y.? Same price.

Another local event, Sen. Susan Collins’ annual Maine-style lobster lunch, this month costs $500 for individuals and $1,000 for PACs.

The vacation fundraisers have the added costs of travel — airfare, lodging, car rentals.

“My kids are all going to community college since I’m giving all this money away,” said one K Street lobbyist who donates into the six figures each cycle. But giving money distinguishes him from his peers who keep their wallets tighter.

In other words, it’s priceless.

Kate Ackley is a staff writer at CQ Roll Call who keep tabs on the influence industry.

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