'Most precious resource ... is time'

Along with the evangelical voters who flocked to the polls, add Dirk Van Dongen and his ilk to the list of people whom President Bush and victorious Republican Senate candidates may want to thank.

Van Dongen is a familiar inside-the-Beltway face, as his office wall adorned with photographs of Ronald Reagan and D.C. power brokers demonstrates. But for those — new in town, presumably — who don’t know, the 61-year-old is the head of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW) — a group with political power belying its name, which evokes delivery trucks and dollies and the unloading of heavy boxes.
Along with the evangelical voters who flocked to the polls, add Dirk Van Dongen and his ilk to the list of people whom President Bush and victorious Republican Senate candidates may want to thank.

Van Dongen is a familiar inside-the-Beltway face, as his office wall adorned with photographs of Ronald Reagan and D.C. power brokers demonstrates. But for those — new in town, presumably — who don’t know, the 61-year-old is the head of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW) — a group with political power belying its name, which evokes delivery trucks and dollies and the unloading of heavy boxes.
patrick g. ryan
Van Dongen was upfront about his opposition to Daschle: “Daschle’s entire modus operandi was to be an obstructionist.”

Van Dongen has spent the better part of two decades raising the NAW’s profile on Capitol Hill and gobs of money for Republican candidates. With a reputation as a coalition-builder, he has been at the forefront of the push for tax, healthcare, tort and other business-friendly reforms.

Democrats — particularly Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) — stood in the way of some of those efforts, and Van Dongen and a cadre of D.C. money men and women set out nearly a year ago to topple them and give Bush four more years.

In the most closely watched congressional race in the 2004 election, former Republican congressman John Thune upended Daschle, one of four Republican Senate net gains in the election.

There will be 55 Republicans to 44 Democrats and one Democratic-leaning independent in the new Senate, closer to the magic, filibuster-proof 60-vote number.

The potential payoff is huge for the business types such as Van Dongen, who risked retribution from an angry returning Senate minority leader or even, if things went really well for the Democrats, an incoming majority leader.

“Daschle’s entire modus operandi was to be an obstructionist,” Van Dongen said, explaining why Team Thune, a campaign strategy designed to raise big donations in relatively short time and encourage get-out-the-vote efforts, came to be.

“People got to the point where they simply concluded we have got to try to change the situation, and the way you change it is electing John Thune.”

There was also a Team Burr, which backed Republican congressman Richard Burr in his successful race for the Senate seat being vacated by John Edwards (D-N.C.). Burr beat former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles.

Though more likely to rehash his college-football-playing days, Burr nevertheless used to be a wholesaler-distributor himself before winning a spot in Congress.

Another team supported Republican Rep. Jim DeMint, who won the race to replace retiring Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D) in South Carolina.

The NAW directed Teams Thune and Burr, raising nearly half a million dollars for each candidate. That total amounted to half of Thune’s PAC target, Van Dongen said. The NAW also helped with Team DeMint, which was run by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a departure for that group, which traditionally doesn’t endorse candidates.

The Chamber was also involved in toppling Daschle and was a prominent supporter of Bush through the Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC), a group of dozens of corporations and trade associations such as the National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable, the National Federation of Independent Business and the NAW.

Political scientists are likely to find many reasons for why Bush won a convincing reelection and Republicans added to majorities in the Senate and House.

Evangelical voters — perhaps motivated by the gay-marriage issue and Kerry’s pro-abortion-rights stance — added nearly 3.5 million to their ranks from 2000,
according to some estimates. The vast majority of those voters backed Bush.

In addition, polls show that voters for whom the war on terrorism was their most important issue sided with the president more than not.

And business leaders, by raising millions of dollars and improving get-out-the-vote efforts, are claiming some share of the credit, and the spoils. That means, to Van Dongen at least, tort reform, permanent tax cuts and pro-business healthcare reform.

“It was a good evening,” said Van Dongen, a political junkie who monitored events at the Ronald Reagan Building, where Bush-Cheney supporters gathered to wait the returns.

Businesses have always been ready with a check for candidates they support, usually Republicans. But with campaign-finance reform prohibiting large soft-money donations, business groups had to tweak their strategy, although they ended up contributing as much as they did in 2000.

Using BIPAC-developed software, employees at the NAW’s 40,000 member companies could visit the association’s website, type in their ZIP codes and get polling information. Visitors could download absentee-ballot applications or early-voting forms.

The joke in some Republican circles held that in 2000, GOTV stood for “go on TV.” Many blamed Al Gore’s popular-vote victory over Bush on the Democrats’ better ground game. Early returns have held that the opposite was true in 2004.

A total of 1.6 million voter-registration and absentee-ballot forms were downloaded through BIPAC’s software. That’s up from 200,000 in 2000 and 400,000 in 2002.

Add to that the millions of direct mailings and e-mails and dozens of volunteers sent to help out with competitive races and you see why Van Dongen calls the effort one of the “real underappreciated stories of this election.”

According to the team concept, 20 to 25 Republican “D.C. types,” as Van Dongen calls them, promise to raise $25,000 each for a candidate.

For people to whom economies of scale and efficiency are almost religious precepts, the network allows business leaders to quickly raise cash, thereby reducing the time a candidate has to spend fundraising.

“The most precious resource a candidate has is time. And you want them to be spending as much of that time as possible out in the state, not in D.C. raising money,” Van Dongen said from his K Street office.

Van Dongen speaks of money the way most longtime D.C. politicos do: unapologetically, without shame or guilt. It has been, is and will always be a part of the system.

But he calls naive the notion that the NAW and other contributors will now be able to dictate policy to the people they supported. That is a chicken-and-egg question with an answer, he suggests: Candidates support their positions, and the money flows — not the other way around.

Taking an out-front position against someone as powerful as Daschle emboldens others to join the cause, Van Dongen said.

“That provides a certain amount of comfort, hopefully to others in the city, that says, ‘Hey, come on in. The water’s fine. It’s all right to go to a fundraiser for John Thune. There is life after that contribution.’”

With the check-writing done for now, the NAW and Van Dongen can get back to policy, including preparing for the high-stakes game of tax reform. Lobbying on tax policy is the “World Series of lobbying,” Van Dongen said.

The NAW has a deep bench. The group maintains a computerized database of its members who personally know senators and representatives on the Hill.

Van Dongen said the group has contacts for every Senate office and 433 out of 435 House offices. Each contact is rated in one of three categories: “know slightly,” “know moderately” and “know very well.”

“We have people in all three categories in just about every office up on the Hill. There is nothing more consequential than a constituent.”