Big political donors on the hook for $350,000, so what do they get in return?

Back in President Kennedy's days, the fat cats gave $1,000 each and scored White House invitations. The ante is much higher now, at the federal level and here in Washington state.

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Back in President Kennedy's days, the fat cats gave $1,000 each and scored White House invitations. The ante is much higher now, at the federal level and here in Washington state.

Just before leaving for Brazil last week, President Barack Obama met with 450 political donors and asked each of them to raise $350,000 this year to help fund his 2012 reelection campaign. That would amount to $157 million — still far short of the $1 billion the 2012 presidential election is expected to cost each party nominee. Obama's pitch was neither an evil nor virtuous action but, simply, what any major candidate must do in order to be competitive in big-time politics.

Obama has an advantage that Republican presidential aspirants lack: Namely, he is the only Democratic candidate and he is the current occupant of the White House, where he is in a position to help or hurt just about any corporation, labor union, interest group, or individual through public policy. His potential GOP opponents — numbering at least 10 at this moment — must raise money individually and without any assurance that they will occupy the White House and be in a post-2012 position to equally help or hurt those who give political money.

Money is not the decisive factor in high-level politics — unless a candidate lacks it. Sen. Patty Murray has taken responsibility to help incumbent Democratic senators and non-incumbent Senate candidates raise the money they need to be competitive in 2012. It is a daunting task, since more than twice as many Democratic as Republican incumbents have their seats at stake next year. Her money-raising job is far more difficult than Obama's.

In 2008, Obama's campaign raised and spent $750 million, and the party's fat cats — nominally members of an "advisory committee" or "national finance committee" — were asked to pony up $250,000 apiece. As recently as Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis' 1988 Democratic presidential campaign, the tariff was $100,000 each and the number of donors was much smaller. Way back in the 1960s, you could be a member of President Kennedy's and Johnson's "President's Club" for a mere $1,000. In return, you got invited to White House and party events and regular briefings by White House political staff.

What do donors get and expect for their money? The answer falls into several categories.

There are players such as the public-employee and teachers' unions, big financial houses, major industries, and companies that have straightforward economic interests at stake and buy a place at the table in order to be heard. (In 2008, Wall Street firms were the largest contributors to Obama's presidential campaign while defense contractors were the biggest to Sen. John McCain's).

The same is true at state and local level. The Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) traditionally has been a big backer of Republican candidates. Teachers, public employees, and Indian tribes back Democrats. Many states have tribal gaming, for instance. The states typically receive millions in tax revenues annually from casinos. The sole exception is Washington, where gaming receipts are exempt from taxation, thanks to a deal made by Gov. Chris Gregoire's office. The grateful tribes made six-figure contributions to Gregoire's gubernatorial campaign and the state Democratic Party.

Boeing, Microsoft, and other economic players in the state make contributions to officeholders and candidates of both political parties and, in return, get generous subsidies from state taxpayers. Sound Transit, which is publicly funded, cannot make direct contributions to candidates. But the network of contractors, sub-contractors, law firms, p.r. firms, consultants, and financial houses deriving revenue from Sound Transit are major donors to officeholders with decisionmaking power over Sound Transit funding.

Whether the donor is an Archer Daniels Midland seeking a useless but expensive federal ethanol subsidy, or a Boeing Co. demanding money to keep operations in-state, political money can generate tax breaks, subsidies, and direct public spending on behalf of directly affected economic interests.

Among Obama's 450, and their counterparts on the Republican side, many are not merely seeking economic benefits. Typically, these are people who raise political money so they can receive White House invitations, get VIP treatment at party conventions, and generally rub elbows with the politically powerful. "I am close to the president (senator, governor, mayor, and so on)," such donors often remark. Well, sometimes they really are close to the politicians whose names they drop. But often as not, their principal contacts are with the fundraising and other staff of those politicians. National committees of both political parties, Senate and House campaign committees, and key officeholders have fulltime staff who do nothing but massage the egos of big donors.

Finally, there are ideological donors — typically individuals rather than organizations. The Koch family is getting present notoriety for its contributions to conservative causes. Stewart Mott, in the 1960s and 1970s, was a generous donor to Democratic peace candidates.

Such donors may be for or against abortion, foreign interventions, gay rights, gun control, and other issues. Their focus is not self-interested financial gain. They believe strongly in their viewpoint and will help finance candidates who agree with them. Not only major donors, but rank-and-file small donors, respond to candidate appeals addressing these issues — most often in years past through direct-mail and phone appeals, now more frequently through Internet appeals.

How do the offcieholders themselves feel about political fundraising?

Most hate it. Campaigns are so expensive that incumbents can spend as much as a third of their waking hours hustling money. It is worst for members of Congress, who have two-year terms and are either paying off the previous campaign's debt or financing the one just ahead.

Imagine for a moment that you are a senator spending many hours daily in committee meetings, casting votes on the Senate floor, or meeting with constituents or groups petitioning you on a given issue. Perhaps half your luncheons or dinners, while in Washington, D.C., are spent in the company of present or prospective donors. When you return home on weekends, you also are seeking political money. Are you spending this time with friends and people you genuinely like? Most often the answer is no. You may pretend friendship but, really, you see this as time spent by necessity with people who are stealing time from your family or favorite leisure activity. The ordeal of fundraising is a principal reason that incumbents, sometimes unexpectedly, do not seek reelection.

Why degrade yourself, the thinking goes, when there is another, happier world where campaign fundraising does not exist?

A few candidates enjoy fundraising — Sen. Alan Cranston of California was one — but most despise it.
The greatest favor you can pay your favorite political candidate is to give him or her a campaign contribution without expecting anything in return — no economic favor, no face time, no allegiance to a rigid ideological position. Such contributions are valued and appreciated. But the big ones, regrettably, usually come with some price tag attached which the candidate must pay.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of