Congressional candidates get creative to boost coffers

WASHINGTON -- When country-pop phenom Taylor Swift's tour took her through Washington last week,…

Georgia (Jun 11, 2010)

WASHINGTON -- When country-pop phenom Taylor Swift's tour took her through Washington last week, she easily filled the Verizon Center here with young girls who sang and swooned to every note.
 
Also in the house: Fans of conservative U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Roswell, who contributed $2,500 to Price's political action committee, called Voice for Freedom, in exchange for a seat with the Republican congressman at the sold-out show.
 
Earlier this year, Democratic U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop of Albany held a fund-raiser with the National Rifle Association where guests forked over $500 per head ($1,000 per PAC) to experience the "latest in laser shooting technology," according to an invitation obtained by the nonpartisan watchdog group Sunlight Foundation. Bishop also has held fund-raisers at Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Jay-Z concerts in Washington.
 
With the political fund-raising season heating up -- summer is traditionally the busiest time for politicians seeking campaign contributions -- members of Georgia's congressional delegation are playing host at parties of every kind.
"We're having as many [fund-raisers] as often as we can," Bishop said.
 
Even so, the business of political fund-raising -- just like most businesses -- is down this year.
 
Through March, Democratic Rep. Jim Marshall of Macon had about $850,000 in cash on hand for his re-election campaign, for instance. During the same time period two years ago, he had more than $1 million in the bank.
 
"It has definitely been more difficult," said Doug Moore, Marshall's chief of staff.
 
The lousy economy has a lot to do with it. But so does the fact that there are an inordinate number of candidates running for office, all seeking money from donors.
 
Atlanta lobbyist John Thomas said his firm reduced its political contributions by about 30 percent this year.
 
"There's a limited amount of money in any economy for political contributions, and when corporate sales are down, investments are down, salaries are down. That means there's less money in the whole system," he said.
 
Instead of trying to attract big donors, Thomas said he advises politicians to aim low this year.
 
That's the approach Republican Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah said he's taking.
 
"I'm taking small strokes, trying to make base hits -- luncheons and things like that," Kingston said.
Others are still swinging for the fences.
 
Marietta Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey's Doc PAC, for instance, recently held a "Weekend of World Class Golf and Relaxation" at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation, near Lake Oconee for $1,500 per person or $2,500 per PAC.
 
Democratic Rep. John Barrow of Savannah hosted a St. Patrick's Day weekend party at the Westin Savannah Harbor resort in exchange for $2,500 contributions, according to an invitation. Barrow also has held private fund-raisers on a Savannah River boat and at a Bruce Springsteen concert.
 
Both incumbents and challengers need campaign funds. But because they're already in office, it's usually easier for incumbents to raise the biggest bucks.
 
Even if they don't need the money for their own campaigns, many of Georgia's politicians are still out raising funds for their own political action committees. Through those PACs -- such as Price's Voice of Freedom PAC or Gingrey's Doc PAC -- they can direct funds to other candidates they support, regardless of where they're running for office.
 
Oftentimes, campaign money comes from people who have no ties at all to Georgia. Sometimes, it goes to people with no ties to Georgia.
 
Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta is a draw enough just being himself. In March, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee held a belated 70th birthday party for the civil rights icon that featured former President Bill Clinton, according to an invitation. That party, at a Washington museum, raised funds not for Lewis but for another congressman, Rep. John Larson of Connecticut. Later this month, Lewis is hosting a fund-raising reception in Washington for his own campaign open to anybody willing to pay $1,000.
 
No member of Congress from Georgia has raised more money this election season than Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson. According to the Federal Election Commission, he had raised $3.5 million through the end of March.
 
Last week, Isakson and supporters held a $50-per-plate barbecue in Marietta. In July, he plans to attend a "corn boiling" party.
But Isakson and his supporters also recently held a big-ticket private dinner in Georgia featuring former Bush adviser Karl Rove. Isakson also has raised money at other exclusive dinners -- he took in $70,000 at one recently -- and at high-priced golf tournaments.
 
"A lot of the ways we raise money now depends on what the person hosting it wants to do," Isakson said.
Receptions and dinner parties are standard fare.
 
Friends of Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Lithonia recently held a reception for him at their Atlanta home for $250 a pop.
Back in Washington, Democratic Rep. David Scott held a $500-per-person ($1,000-per-PAC) luncheon at the trendy Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar.
 
"We're trying to raise as much money as we can," said Scott, who faces a crowded field this year to keep his seat. "It is a tough environment … but I think people appreciate the work we're doing."
 
For average voters, the high-priced events can appear to be just another sign that big money drives Washington politicians. But politicians defend big-ticket fund-raisers as a necessary evil.
 
"You can ask … ‘Well, what's this congressman doing going out playing golf and trying to raise $2,500 or $1,000 or whatever … when other people are out of work,' " Gingrey said. "But the point is, we want to help get those people back to work.
 
"And if this helps me [do that] by either helping myself in my own re-election or … helping others in districts where I think we can win and get the Republican majority back, then that's what this is all about," he said.
 
Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint said even in tough times, big donors will write big checks to politicians.

"There will always be contributors who can write a big check, but they are being more selective so far this year," Swint said.
As a result, politicians need a variety of events to appeal to potential donors, Price said. He is also teeing up a golf tournament on St. Simons Island and a "Georgia Peach" party in Washington in coming weeks.
 
In today's economy, "it's not a seller's market," Price said. "It's important to be able to go meet people where people are."

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