WASHINGTON — After a quiet January and February, the dinners at steakhouses, drinks at party headquarters and one-off trips to concerts, sports games and the like are back in full swing.
According to the Sunlight Foundation, more than 500 congressional fundraisers were planned during March. To put that in perspective, there were almost as many congressional fundraisers held in March of 2011 as in September 2010, the last big money month before the November elections.
Why now, with the 2012 election still a year and eight months away? Because the deadline to list campaign contributions in the first quarter reports was Thursday. Reports on how much money campaigns raised must be filed between now and April 15.
“For incumbent members of Congress who will face a competitive reelection race, the first quarter is important,” said Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. “It’s important because it sends a signal to the party leaders and the party committees that they’re going to be able to defend their seats.”
Michele Bachmann’s campaign committee, Bachmann for Congress, emphasized that point in a fundraising pitch to supporters earlier this week. Their stated goal in the pitch, sent Wednesday afternoon, was $150,000 by the Thursday-at-midnight deadline.
“Your support — no matter the size — makes a big difference in reporting strong numbers. Make no mistake, the national media and Barack Obama’s campaign advisors will be closely scrutinizing the numbers we report.”
Democrats have already identified Chip Cravaack as a top national target — possibly the No. 1 one race on the map. Outside national money has already begun flowing into that race, even though the district lines have yet to be drawn and no Democrats have formally stepped forward as candidates.
Meanwhile, Republicans say they have their eyes on Tim Walz, who survived a well-funded challenge from Randy Demmer in a very GOP-friendly year, but didn’t crack 50 percent of the vote. He’s near the top of national Republican target lists.
“I would put Chip Cravaack at the top of the list” of Minnesotans who need to have a good first quarter number, Pearson said, “and Walz second, but with considerable distance between them.”
Starting from (almost) scratch
Neither Cravaack nor Walz starts the 2012 cycle with all that much money.
Cravaack was a late-charger in the 2010 campaign who wound up being outspent about 3 to 1 by Jim Oberstar in the last cycle. As he described it, the campaign “ran on $10s and $20s” until very late, and he wound up raising just $623,000.
He started the 2011 cycle with about $36,000 in the bank, and while he wouldn’t preview the number, said he only started fundraising at the state GOP’s Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner in late February because he spent so much time from January to now working on legislating.
Most of Cravaack’s outreach since then has been on the phone. “People were very excited to hear from me, and they said, ‘I thought you were going to call!’” Cravaack said.
Cravaack said he declined to sign a contract with the National Republican Congressional Committee committing to goals for fundraising. “I’m a big boy here, and I know what I need to do.”
Walz raised more than $2.1 million in the 2010 cycle, but almost all of that was spent defending his seat. He started 2011 with $18,000 in the bank but almost $39,000 in outstanding debt.
Walz has held at least three fundraisers in Washington in March, according to invitations obtained by the Sunlight Foundation — one with Al Franken at a townhouse on Capitol Hill, another at a prominent Italian restaurant on the Hill and a third with other potentially vulnerable freshmen at DNC headquarters.
His campaign, like Cravaack, didn’t preview their numbers.
“Starting from day one in this election cycle and as the congressman has done in past campaigns, he will raise the resources and he will mobilize his grassroots supporters to win,” said Kim Hansen, finance director for Walz’s campaign.
The best pitch in Minnesota
The notable exception to the first quarter scramble has been the nascent GOP presidential contest. Most potential candidates still haven’t formed an exploratory committee, and thus are raising money through their political action committees.
The one major candidate with an exploratory committee is Tim Pawlenty, and even he’s not focused on the first quarter. A senior adviser to the Pawlenty campaign recently told donors on a conference call to hold their fire until today, the start of the second quarter, to donate.
Bachmann, another potential presidential candidate, had about $1.9 million in the bank of her congressional campaign committee as of Dec. 31, and advisers predicted she’d have “significantly more” than that at the end of the first quarter.
The goal there is twofold. Bachmann’s race against Tarryl Clark in 2010 was the most expensive race in House history, and she wants to signal to any potential opponents that they’d be dwarfed by dollars if they ran.
Second, and perhaps more important, depending on what she ultimately decides to do, those funds can also be rolled over to a presidential committee, if she forms one and decides not to run for the House, FEC officials said.
Yet while calls, e-mails, dinners and drinks are all fine and nice, the unofficial crown jewel of fundraisers was one for Collin Peterson.
He ended the 2010 campaign with a 20-point victory over Lee Byberg (who says he’s running again) and more than $400,000 in the bank. So Peterson’s major first-quarter fundraisers have instead been for his political action committee, Valley PAC
Last weekend, 13 people traveled to the Blue Head Ranch in Lake Placid, Fla., about a two-hour drive south of Orlando, for a four-day, three-night turkey hunting fundraiser with Peterson, ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee.
It’s an annual fundraiser for Peterson, who bagged an Osceola turkey, one of the four birds that make up the “grand slam” of turkey hunting. Donors paid their way to Orlando or Tampa, rental car to the ranch, $500 to the ranch for lodging and most meals, and any permit fees.
The minimum donation to Peterson’s PAC: $5,000 per person.