Bringing Money to Politics: A Job for a Pro
Alaska’s U.S. Senate race is shaping up to be a big-money affair. One hidden asset the campaigns deploy is the professional fundraiser. Sen. Mark Begich and the Republican front-runners hoping to unseat him all list professional fundraisers in their campaign finance reports, but they declined to talk about it.
That’s not unusual, says fundraiser Kirsten Borman. If she had Alaska clients, she wouldn’t be talking to us either, but Borman mostly works for Florida congressional campaigns. She says there’s too much at stake for a campaign to pull back the curtain.
“It’s the way it is that your money – your money in the bank, your cash on hand, your quarterly reports – really are a large indicator that the world looks at as to how your campaign is doing,” she says.
She writes a blog on fundraising and serves as something of a spokeswoman for the profession. Money is blamed for a lot of evil in politics, but she’s proud of what she does.
“I facilitate people being able to invest in the candidates and the type of government that they want and that to me is free speech at its best and at its finest,” she says.
She says fundraisers usually work on commission, 10 to 15 percent, and stick to clients of one party. Borman, who works only for Republicans, says each new job helps her develop her donor database– one of the biggest assets any fundraiser brings to a campaign.
“And obviously, the more clients you have the better you get to know donors,” she says. “I mean, fundraising is all about relationships, and it’s about building and maintaining relationships with people who want to invest in good public servants.”
Good fundraisers collect data on what prompts each donor to give – an email, a phone call, maybe a small reception with the candidate – and what issues they care about. Incumbents start with rich data, but even first-time candidates have networks to mine. Take Dan Sullivan, one of the Republicans running against Begich. About a third of the $1.2 million Sullivan raised last year came from Ohio, much of it from people associated with his brother Frank, CEO of RPM International, a company with more than 10,000 employees that makes Rust-Oleum and a host of other paints and selants, as well as roof and floor materials.
Sullivan’s reach isn’t limited to Ohio. He also hired MK Group, a fundraiser for the Bush family and National Right to Life. Meanwhile, his GOP rival Mead Treadwell hired Lisa Spies, a former Mitt Romney fundraiser. Her website says she is Treadwell’s national finance director.
University of Connecticut Political Science Professor Paul Herrnson says candidates are really operating two campaigns: One for votes back home, and one for money.
“Fundraising, unlike collecting votes, is a fully national activity,” he says.
The campaign for votes has a limited season, he says, and it ends on election day. For incumbents, at least, the campaign for money is perpetual, and it’s intensified since Citizens United. That U.S. Supreme Court decision let money flood into political attack groups. Herrnson says it created a massive wild card.
“Candidates didn’t know what was coming at them, and so the threat level became higher, and candidates who could raise lots of money, and that is mainly incumbents, raised more, because they were not sure of what they would face in the election,” he says.
Sen. Begich relies on a Washington outfit called Benchmark Strategies for fundraising. His campaign paid Benchmark more than $100,000 in the last three months of the year – far more than his Republican challengers paid their fundraisers in the same period. Begich also leads the way in the money race. But Stephen Medvic, associate professor of government at Franklin and Marshall College, says there’s little evidence fundraising consultants actually reap more than a campaign would raise on its own.
“Lots of organizations and lots of big donors, they keep their eye out for candidates who they think might have a chance and if a candidate shows any sign of being competitive, they’ll cut a check and send it, sometimes, you know, completely unsolicited,” Medvic says.
Big fundraisers, though, lend cachet to a campaign. They make a candidate seem more viable. That alone draws money, particularly from national donors. And he doesn’t see that as a bad thing. Like it or not, it takes a lot of money to win, and Medvic says fundraising consultants make the task easier.
“I guess the question is do you want the candidate spending most of his or her time out raising money or do you want them out talking to voters?”
And then he laughs. Let’s not kid ourselves, he says; Candidates still have to spend a lot of time asking for money.
Even Borman, a fundraiser herself, says the importance placed on campaign money has gone too far. She says it frustrates her that her clients, even those who are already members of Congress, have to spend “an enormous amount of their time” raising money.