Members Question: Is Shutdown Fundraising Worth It?

Posted October 9, 2013 at 5:27pm

The government has shut down, but Charlie Palmer, Johnny’s Half-Shell, The Monocle and many other local congressional fundraising haunts aren’t closed.

For some members, they might as well be.

When the government shut down last week, many members rushed to cancel long-planned events at restaurants, spas and shooting ranges. Without an edict from party leaders, members must decide individually whether it’s kosher to bring in bucks during the spending impasse.

So far, vulnerable members have rationalized that the optics of walking into a mega-donor event isn’t worth the cash.

“It’s just a moral decision that each person is making on their own,” said vulnerable Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz. “We’ve got people out of work. There’s still high unemployment in my district. This is not the time to be raising money.”

“I’m not fundraising and I am not attending fundraisers,” said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who is running for Senate in 2014. “But I don’t know what anyone else is doing.”

Even worse, vulnerable members don’t want to get caught on tape walking into such events. The footage makes obvious fodder for future campaign ads.

Just ask Sen. Kay Hagan, a vulnerable Democrat seeking re-election in North Carolina. On Tuesday, Republicans caught her on camera walking into the National Association of Realtors to raise money.

Several more Democrats in safe seats continued to prime the pump. Reps. John D. Dingell and Sander M. Levin of Michigan and Reps. Charles B. Rangel and Nydia M. Velázquez of New York went forward with their fundraising events.

“Why shouldn’t I?” Dingell responded to a question about one of his events. “I don’t have to ask permission to have a fundraiser do I?”

Some Democrats see the shutdown as the GOP’s fault and argue that fundraising is a means to combat Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections. But other members, such as Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., canceled their events.

“Members have to make their own decisions,” said Democratic fundraiser Mike Fraioli, who raises money for Hagan, Costa and many other Democrats. “There are times when it’s been a no brainer … but by and large it’s part of Washington.”

“It’s just not the right thing to do,” countered Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., a top GOP target in 2014. “But no one told me that. It’s just common sense.”

By comparison, Republicans are more skittish about raising money during the shutdown. One GOP operative said the only edict given to incumbents is “to use your head.”

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, said in a Tuesday evening interview with CQ Roll Call that there is a sense in her conference that it’s not a good idea to host fundraisers during the shutdown.

Nonetheless, Democrats caught several top GOP Senate candidates attending an Oct. 3 event for American Crossroads. Video footage showed former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, North Carolina state Speaker Thom Tillis, plus Reps. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Steve Daines of Montana at the House of Sweden event.

Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio said the event was not a fundraiser. An invitation billed it as “an opportunity for supporters … to hear from party leaders, policy experts, rising stars, and the top 2014 Senate candidates.”

Former Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican from Virginia, is a veteran of the last round of shutdowns in the mid-1990s. He argued that the pain of fundraising will only be temporary for members.

“My experience is that it’s bad optics today, but long term I don’t think it makes a bit of a difference,” said Davis, a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman.

Still, some staffers concede their bosses are continuing to fundraise quietly. With Congress in session over the weekends, many members can’t go home. As a result, they have blocks of unscheduled time on their hands — an unusual situation for members while they’re in Washington.

Typically, congressional staff are trained to spot such windows of free time and schedule call time for the boss. But even phone time has proven less fruitful. Members are burned out from the fundraising push at the end of the second quarter. More to the point, donors don’t want to hear their telephone pleas anyway.

Instead, aides say members are forced to use newfound free time for “donor maintenance” — offering thanks for previous donations.

Meanwhile, lobbyist and political action committee fundraisers are dumbfounded by their newly empty schedules.

Postponing an event isn’t an easy decision for a cash-strapped campaign. Without enough notice, caterers will charge for food. But campaigns are reluctant to cancel some fundraisers in hopes the shutdown will end soon.

The fundraising setback will show in the fourth quarter’s bottom line. The holiday season already makes October, November and December the most difficult months for members to raise money.

What’s more, the impasse over government funding and the debate over raising the debt ceiling show no signs of ending soon.

The reality of the calender prompted one lobbyist to wonder if it will soon no longer be taboo for members to fundraise during the crisis.

“At some point, does it become OK to go back and do this stuff?” a Democratic lobbyist asked. “I suspect not for a little while.”