Senate GOP tops goal for fundraiser

Loyal Republicans will converge on the Washington Convention Center tonight for the annual President’s Dinner amid low congressional approval ratings and uncertainty about President Bush’s strength on Capitol Hill.

Tonight’s dinner is the biggest single fundraising event for the GOP’s two congressional arms — the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). Bush will be the featured speaker for the fifth time since reaching the White House.

The NRSC raised $9 million for the dinner, $1 million more than its initial goal. The NRCC had set a goal of $14 million for the dinner but had not released its official count by press time yesterday.

NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) said the dinner would be a big boost to the $13 million his committee has already raised this cycle.

“We’re in excellent position,” Reynolds said, attributing his success to the dedication of conference members. “Every conference on the Hill wishes they were the House Republican majority.”

The dinner comes as congressional approval ratings continue to slide and two of Bush’s major agenda items — Social Security reform and the Central America Free Trade Agreement — hang in the balance.

Democrats in both chambers hope to capitalize on this political environment to gain ground during the midterm elections.

Last cycle, Democratic leaders in both chambers pointed toward a “national breeze” that would sweep them back into power. This cycle, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) has so far avoided outright predictions, but there is a growing sense among congressional Democrats that the wind is at their back for 2006.

An Associated Press poll released last week showed congressional approval at 30 percent, with 64 percent disapproving of the job Congress is doing. In addition, 35 percent thought the country was headed in the right direction and 43 percent approved of the job Bush is doing.

Emanuel and the DCCC have made an issue of ethical questions surrounding the travel of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). On its website, the DCCC names a “Tom DeLay Crony of the Week” linking a targeted House member to the majority leader or his fundraising arm.

Reynolds dismissed the tactic and said Emanuel was doing the same thing that each of his predecessors had done by trying out a number of strategies to see what would work.

Reynolds also criticized his competition for targeting more races than the DCCC could afford to fund, saying, “The fact is it’s going to be the same dozen or so races” that it was last year.

“Obviously, the questions surrounding DeLay don’t help Republicans, but they might not hurt as much as the Democrats would have hoped,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College and former research director at the Republican National Committee (RNC).

Pitney said it would be hard to tell how much impact the recent travel scandals would have on the 2006 election, pointing out that House Democrats actually picked up seats following the resignation of former Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) after he was charged with ethical violations in connection with a book deal.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who chaired the event on the House side, said this year’s dinner presented particular fundraising challenges coming almost 17 months before the midterm election.

“This is an off year, so obviously there is not the donor base,” Kingston said of the difficulty of raising money right after a presidential election.

Tonight’s dinner comes on the heels of the NRCC’s Spring Gala, making it harder to get money from in-town lobbyists, many of whom contributed the maximum for that event. Members must instead focus on district donors.

“You can’t go to K Street,” Kingston said. “You have to go to Kansas and Idaho. It’s very labor-intensive. It weans you from a K Street dependency.”

Tonight’s dinner is more than a fundraising event for many of the attendees, Kingston said, because they will get a chance to hear from party leaders, including the president, and take that message back home.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) will make opening remarks at the dinner. Then Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairing the event for the NRSC, will introduce the president, who is expected to speak for 20 minutes and then leave. Other speakers will include NRSC Chairwoman Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), Reynolds and Kingston.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy will be the featured musical guest.

Individual tickets for the President’s Dinner cost $2,500, and table sponsors are required to raise $25,000. They can have their pictures taken with Bush before the event.

Tonight’s dinner is the capstone of a busy two days for loyal Republicans who have flocked to Washington in support of their party. GOP members from both chambers were hosting a number of events throughout the two-day fundraising drive.

Among the events were a reception and dinner at the Hay-Adams Hotel featuring former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) for donors who have contributed $15,000 or more to the NRSC, a late-morning lunch with Vice President Cheney at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown and a lunch with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie at Ortanique.

Republican leaders know that 2006 will be a hard-fought campaign but said they believe party loyalty and dedicated fundraising would the key to their eventual success.

“It’s tough, but we’ve got a good story to tell,” Kingston said of holding the majority. “We can’t sit back and assume we’ll keep the gavels in our hands.”