Saturday, June 16, 2018
Politics

Fundraising success for RNC host committee came from small number of big checkbooks

TAMPA

In the months leading up to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, local boosters talked a breezy, confident game: Fundraising? Going well. No worries.

Privately, it was much harder than they let on.

Recession-battered companies that gave to previous national political conventions were sitting this one out. Companies in major regions of Florida seemed indifferent to their sales pitch. (Hello, Orlando? Disney? Universal?)

Two months before the Aug. 27-30 convention, the Tampa Bay Host Committee was nearly $30 million short of its $55 million goal, according to data from an 833-page report filed this week with the Federal Election Commission.

One month out, it was still more than $15 million short.

"There were days when we were genuinely concerned that we might not make it," host committee president Ken Jones said Thursday.

But make it they did — and then some. How is a story largely about a few people with the ability to write big checks, to persuade others to do so, or both.

• • •

As much as anything, the numbers show this: This was a convention paid for by the 1 percent.

Contributions totaled nearly $55.3 million: $44.9 million in cash and $10.4 million in donations of goods or services.

The host committee had 18 donors who gave $1 million or more. Those included hedge funds and their founders, high-tech companies, industrialists, CEOs and several charitable trusts.

Some are well-known supporters of conservative candidates, like Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who propped up Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign for a while; or causes, like David Koch, who with his brother Charles controls a chemical, oil and household products conglomerate giving them a combined net worth of $50 billion.

Altogether, those 18 donors accounted for 60 percent of the money raised for the RNC.

Add in the donors who gave at least $100,000, and the host committee raised about 91 percent of its money in increments of six or seven figures. That's a higher percentage of big-money donors than for either national political convention four years ago.

• • •

With $4.6 million from himself and two of his companies, St. Petersburg businessman Bill Edwards was a hero of the host committee's fundraising effort.

Organizers say Edwards played an even bigger role than his contributions alone suggest.

He's credited with helping to pull in the Seminole Hard Rock Casino Tampa ($100,000), David Koch ($1 million) and three Pinellas County title company executives, William Baumgart, Ian Gorman and James Sketch, who combined gave another $1 million.

Edwards was also among the many local boosters who worked to persuade Adelson to write the biggest check the host committee would receive — $5 million.

"We pleaded our case so much — over and over — I think he just finally said, 'Okay,' " Edwards said Thursday.

"Bill's a Vegas guy," Jones said. "He produced Muhammad Ali's 70th birthday party last year. He had a show in Vegas, Cheap Trick does the Beatles, at Paris Hotel. It was sold out for three months. So he knows Steve Wynn. He knows Adelson."

Much of that money arrived when it was really needed. Edwards' biggest corporate contribution, Koch's check and Adelson's check — they all came in a rush of $14 million in donations during July. Nearly $14.3 million more followed in August.

Edwards, a member of the host committee's executive board, got involved in fundraising early. Host committee chairman Al Austin said organizers wanted him because of his concern for his community and his generosity.

But both Austin and Edwards said the task turned out to be harder than anyone expected.

At one point, Edwards said, he was even in a meeting where the idea of cutting back aspects of the convention was discussed.

But the whole idea of the convention was to increase tourism and show off the area — not only to delegates but to national and international journalists, he said.

It had to work, so Edwards said he decided to "prime the pump one more time" and re-double his efforts to get people on the verge of donating to give.

"To me," he said, "when you promise somebody that you're going to do something, you've got to do it."

• • •

A little more than a year out from the convention, host committee leaders talked of raising 45 percent of their funds inside Florida. In the end, it turned out to be 27 percent, and it wasn't evenly distributed.

Contributions from the Orlando area were negligible — not quite $500,000. Neither Universal Studios nor Disney gave a dime.

"Orlando? I can't speak for the companies that didn't give," Jones said. "I will tell you that we pitched them. We sat down with them on numerous occasions and we asked."

• • •

The host committee reported spending $52.4 million through Oct. 2.

In coming months, the host committee plans to commission an economic impact study that looks at how much direct convention spending took place in the Tampa Bay area — not only from the money raised by the host committee, but from money spent on the convention by the Republican Party and on security spending by the city of Tampa.

Jones has said he expects the overall economic impact to be in the range of $175 million, and he stuck by that estimate Thursday.

And he said he thinks that's true even with some big contracts, like a $5.5 million bus transportation contract to Gameday Management Group of Orlando, going to companies outside the Tampa Bay area.

With 400 charter buses to put on the road, Gameday hired buses from this area and well beyond, Jones said.

"They may be based in Orlando, but the job was here," he said. "They had to go to the restaurants here, stay in the hotels here, so I think that even though they were from slightly outside of the bay area, they were still here in the bay area doing a job which impacted our economy."

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