The newest fad in fundraising: Gold-level clubs for lobbyists

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The events often feel like a meeting among friends, attendees say. As you nosh on eggs and bagels, updates on each other’s children are exchanged and questions start flowing. What grade is he in now? How’s your wife? Has anybody in the family gotten Covid?

But in these cozy gatherings, made up of small groups of lobbyists and a member of Congress, the small talk is quite expensive.

These aren’t your typical campaign fundraisers. Instead, they’re part of an increasingly popular fad in money raising: access to a bundle of small gatherings that lobbyists can purchase. Instead of brief face time with a lawmaker at a single event, they are offered the opportunity to develop almost a familial relationship with him or her over a series of them.

For instance, one can break bread within Sen. Ben Ray Luján’s “leadership circle.” Donors who reserve a seat in the New Mexico Democrat’s gold level campaign club with a $1,000 check are guaranteed a spot at a series of events promoted by his campaign as intimate gatherings.

“Attendance will be capped at each event to ensure time is productive for all participants,” according to an invite, obtained by POLITICO.

At these campaign club events, talk centers around baseball and kids, rather than simply politics and policy, according to people who have attended. They include ample face time, rather than grip-and-grin moments at larger fundraisers. Attendance at events often tops out at between 15 to 20 people, usually registered lobbyists. They were created to entice donations from individuals — whose maximum donation to a lawmaker’s campaign is $2,900 per election — rather than corporate political action committees, whose maximum donation to a campaign is generally capped at $5,000 per election. Lobbyists can, in turn, use their membership as a sell for potential new clients. The groups have become part of the ecosystem of Congress and K Street, several lobbyists said, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle leaning into the concept.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), for example, calls her fundraising group a “kitchen cabinet,” one Democratic lobbyist said. Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) also has a “kitchen cabinet” of his own, according to an event invite obtained by POLITICO and sent by a fundraising firm.

Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and John Barrasso (R-Wy.) each offer a “season pass” to attend their campaign events — Barrasso’s goes for $2,900 for individuals, according to an event invite. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) runs a “Brunch Bunch.” Individuals can attend one for $1,000 but get a discount when they sign up for more. The price to attend three is $2,500. For $5,000, a person can attend the entire “series of seven brunches,” which include “special guests.” Last month, she hosted Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and donors at Charlie Palmer Steak, a restaurant located within a stone’s throw from the Capitol.

A campaign spokesman for Soto said the lawmaker held “two or three campaign events dubbed kitchen cabinets” over the last six years. “They were informal conversations with supporters that did not raise funds,” the spokesperson said. Requests for comments to the campaign or congressional offices for the other lawmakers were not returned.

The club idea has been around for years, though never at this level of popularity. And the basic concept is not altogether different from common marketing schemes, where people can buy in bulk at discount. But while both parties are offering the deals, the campaign club concept has proven to be especially useful for Republicans, as political action committees started withholding funds from lawmakers who protested the 2020 election results.

One Republican K Streeter knew of about a dozen similar programs that have been offered. The person said that they offer a way for campaigns to lock in significant donations from individuals amid an “insatiable need to raise money.”

Another Democratic lobbyist called the clubs “mostly a perception game.”

“‘I’m in the council, I have access,’ right? You can sell that on the backend to a broader network downtown,” the lobbyist said. “You want to be seen by other important folks who may hire you, who may tell people that you’re close to X.”

But campaign finance experts questioned whether the groups were inching close to a kind of “pay-to-play” program. Jeff Hauser, the founder of the Revolving Door Project, said that the groups appear to facilitate “even more efficient corruption.”

“It feels like a more precise, less ambiguous form of pay-to-play than pre-existing campaign finance practices,” he said. “The pretenses to a separation of campaign fundraising from issues of policy is breaking down, so it’s a further erosion.”

An early version of the concept in the 2000s came from the late Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio), who hosted a series of book club meetings, offering donors the chance to get to know him better, said one Republican lobbyist who used to work for him. And political party committees have long used a similar idea, but on a grander scale.

Occasionally, members of Congress will host a series of campaign club events to raise money for a number of other members, said Paul Thornell, a Democratic lobbyist with Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas who said he has participated in somewhere between six and 10 such groups. The meetings span both the personal and the professional, from talk of baseball games to a federal nominee awaiting potential confirmation.

The frequency of events allows lobbyists to use their face time with lawmakers to build on their relationships, rather than fast shop talk over policy, said one Democratic lobbyist who belongs to about three such campaign groups. Conversations might focus on life back home before shifting to issues on the congressional docket, and in a setting far more intimate than a typical fundraiser.

But campaign finance activists remain skeptical about the ethics of these kinds of groups. Craig Holman, a campaign finance lobbyist with the advocacy group Public Citizen, argued that lobbyists should be barred from participating in campaign fundraising altogether. He called them “undue influence peddling clubs.”

“Their income is based on their access to government officials,” Holman said. “And this is buying access to government officials.”

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