GOP lobbyists worry Trump lags in K Street fundraising

GOP lobbyists worry Trump lags in K Street fundraising
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A number of Republicans are worried GOP lobbyists are lagging behind their Democratic counterparts when it comes to 2020 super fundraisers, known as bundlers, as President TrumpDonald John TrumpTed Cruz knocks New York Times for 'stunning' correction on Kavanaugh report US service member killed in Afghanistan Pro-Trump website edited British reality star's picture to show him wearing Trump hat MORE's reelection campaign focuses on small-dollar donors and support from the Republican National Committee (RNC).

Several lobbyists who were bundlers for previous presidential campaigns, including for the president’s opponents in the 2016 Republican primary, told The Hill they have not been approached by the Trump campaign to help in 2020. Many Republican lobbyists also said they haven’t offered their services.

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As 2020 nears, Trump's approach to fundraising has rekindled the debate over the role of lobbyist bundlers and their importance for campaigns.

Ken Kies, managing director of the Federal Policy Group and a former George W. Bush bundler, said he isn't aware of any lobbyists in Washington who are bundlers for Trump.

“Honestly I’m hardly aware of anyone in Washington who was a bundler for Trump in the 2016 election and I don’t think that’s really how he raised his money," Kies told The Hill.

A Republican who has bundled for candidates in the past called it a disappointing sign that the party's allies on K Street still haven't warmed up to Trump.

“Bundlers bundle because ... it gives them relationships to get closer to the center of the policy debate — to find out first what’s happening to influence policy at a higher level,” a former bundler on K Street for Bush and now-Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Bolton returns to political group after exiting administration MORE (R-Utah) told The Hill.

“If lobbyists don’t feel their clients are comfortable being seen as Trump supporters, via PACs or checks from the client’s leadership team at a company, they won’t sign up to be bundlers at all or will raise only a fraction of what they could otherwise do.”

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An expert cautioned against Trump and Republicans ignoring any potential source of campaign cash ahead of what is expected to be a historically high-spending race.

“Fundraising is a life or death arms race in the campaign arena. Every source of money will be explored to create advantage," Steven Billet, the director of the masters program in legislative affairs at George Washington University, told The Hill.

Many of the president’s supporters, though, are brushing off those concerns, arguing that the lack of bundlers didn't matter in 2016 and won't hurt Trump's reelection efforts. They note that Trump ran against the Washington establishment and managed to reel in massive amounts from small donors. For some, there's a political advantage in shunning lobbyist fundraising.

“The president and the RNC are breaking all fundraising records. But very little of that is coming from K Street,” said David Tamasi, former finance chairman for the Trump Victory Fund.

Tamasi said he did not expect that to change and saw no reason to worry.

“There continues to be a very small number of K Street lobbyists who financially support the president and the RNC and there’s no expectation that that will expand,” added Tamasi, who launched the government relations and public affairs firm Chartwell Strategy Group in January 2018.

Bundlers show their strength by tapping into their networks to pool money from a number of sources. Because of their work, lobbyists have the networks to do that effectively. And they've been an important source of fundraising for GOP candidates in the past.

Romney, who was the 2012 GOP nominee, had 69 registered lobbyists who collectively brought in more than $17 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In 2008, Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Biden's debate performance renews questions of health At debate, Warren and Buttigieg tap idealism of Obama, FDR MORE (R-Ariz.) had 24 lobbyist bundlers who raised almost $7 million for his presidential campaign.

Sixty-two lobbyists raised about $11 million for Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump's economic approval takes hit in battleground states: poll This is how Democrats will ensure Trump's re-election The Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico MORE from July through September in 2016. For Trump, no lobbyist bundled the $17,600 quarterly minimum that requires a report to the Federal Election Commission in that time period.

But Trump had the edge among small donors, raising almost $240 million from those who gave less than $200 each. Clinton raised almost $137 million from small-dollar donors.

Experts note that those numbers dwarf the fundraising from K Street bundlers.

“Presidential campaigns are different now, bundlers are less important. Trump won last time with few endorsements, no bundler system, little Washington, D.C., based support,” a former bundler told The Hill.

“If he doesn’t get a lot of bundlers, I don’t think it’s going to hurt him,” James Thurber, a political scientist at American University, told The Hill. “I think he’s going to be doing quite well with small contributions.”

Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump is already showing his fundraising chops this cycle. At the beginning of 2019, Trump had more than $19 million in his campaign account.

"In the first two years in his first term in office, he’s engaged in more fundraising for his reelect than I think any past president," Kies said. "Of course, there’s a lot of money being raised."

White House hopefuls across the board are raising stunning amounts of money and quickly. Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersChamber of Commerce argues against Democratic proposals for financial transaction taxes Top Sanders adviser: 'He is a little bit angry' Working Families Party endorses Warren after backing Sanders in 2016 MORE (I-Vt.) brought in $6 million just 24 hours after announcing his candidacy this week. Democratic candidates are also facing the challenge of what's expected to be a record large field.

“He doesn’t need the bundlers to get all the news out about him that he wants to get out," Mark Rom, associate professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University, said of Trump.

Jack Oliver, a veteran GOP fundraiser, told The Hill he believes the Trump campaign will eventually grow its bundling operation, citing the hiring of Cole Blocker, a former White House and campaign veteran, as director of finance.

"The campaign understands that they need to add this piece to what they’ve already done successfully at the grass-roots online donor level and they get that and they're on top of it." 

Oliver, the founder of Bryan Cave Strategies, predicts lobbyists will get on board soon.

“I think Washington will be more engaged in this campaign than they were in the 2016 campaign,” he said.

Trump does have prominent allies on K Street, including Brian Ballard of Ballard Partners, who is considered the most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s circle. He has lobbied for the Trump Organization in Florida for many years and raised money for the president in 2016.

David Urban, who works at American Continental Group and was a senior adviser on the campaign, is another notable figure.

Neither responded to requests to comment.

The former Bush and Romney bundler told The Hill that at the end of the day a sitting president should mobilize all of his fundraising support.

“Trump did very well with small-dollar donors in 2016 — much better than the party’s other candidates — and he will crank up the machine again," the former GOP bundler said.

"But bundlers have been a huge boon to past sitting presidents running for reelection and Trump can’t count on that happening to the same degree as any other incumbent president [who] could have turned on a switch and made that happen.”

For Kies, who raised $100,000 for Bush, Trump's approach just highlights how he is different than past presidents.

"Like most everything as it relates to Trump, whether you love him or you don’t, is he’s different," Kies told The Hill. "Anybody who tries to kind of take him and put him into the slot that other presidents fit in in terms of how they raise their money ... he’s just not conventional in any respect."

Updated on Feb. 24 at 12:15 p.m.