Monday, December 11, 2017
Politics

Republican National Convention fund raisers reach out to small donors

When you have to raise $55 million for the Republican National Convention, it helps to get a lot of six- and seven-figure checks.

But those aren't the only donations the Tampa Bay Host Committee is chasing.

This month, it began reaching out to small donors who might give $100, $50, even $25. And it's talking about giving away a trip to the convention with box seats at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

In a fundraising email to more than 20,000 people, former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez says it's good to contribute to "put on a convention we can all be proud of and showcase Tampa Bay like never before."

So if the host committee is fishing for small-fry donations, does that mean it's struggling to raise the big money it needs?

Not a bit, says host committee president Ken Jones.

"I'm 100 percent confident that we will raise the money," Jones told the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club on Wednesday. "People historically say conventions collapse into place. We're making sure we don't collapse into place. We want a smooth landing."

Jones won't say how much the committee has raised so far. In February, he said it had banked tens of millions of dollars in cash and in-kind contributions — at a minimum, more than a third of the total goal. Wednesday, he said the committee has hit every one of its fundraising milestones.

The host committee's mission is to promote the Tampa Bay area by raising the money needed to stage a successful convention. It's a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that is separate from the Republican Party, and contributions to it are tax-deductible.

The $55 million that the host committee has committed to raising privately is one piece of the larger financing picture for the convention and the security around it.

The Federal Election Commission also grants each party about $18 million for its conventions. And Congress appropriated $50 million to cover the city of Tampa's security costs.

The host committee's small donor program is about harnessing the power of the Internet, a cost-effective way of raising money.

"Our goal in this is to reach as broad an audience as possible," Jones said in a recent interview. He expects more appeals like Martinez's, from Republicans and Democrats alike, going to hundreds of thousands of people.

Mostly, however, the host committee's fundraising is focused on big money.

Four years ago, heavy hitters who gave $250,000 to $3 million supplied 80 percent of the private financing for the national political conventions, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.

For the 2008 GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn., 87 percent of the donations came from contributors who gave at least $250,000, and 44 percent came from 15 donors who wrote checks of $1 million to $3 million.

That's similar to what's shaping up here.

"What we've received and what we anticipate receiving will be similar to past convention host committees," Jones said. Over the past two years, he and other members of the host committee have met with 250 CEOs around the country.

With a sour economy, "when you go to a company these days to say, 'I need you to give me a million dollars,' or, in some cases, 'I need you to give me $5 million,' they say, 'Well, make the business case,' " Jones said. "So you've got to go out and do a sales job and it's hard to do."

Corporate donors sometimes want to make charitable donations and sometimes want to leverage their support into branding and marketing opportunities. That could mean credentials. It could mean hosting an event at the convention.

But, Jones said, "we do not sell access to politicians."

So far, the host committee has already received several multimillion contributions, which Jones said could include both cash and in-kind donations of goods or services.

What has kept the host committee on pace, Jones said, has been starting seven months earlier than previous host committees, hiring Andrew McKenna, a plugged-in Washington, D.C.-area fundraiser, and getting help from its own well-connected members.

At Tiger Bay, Jones singled out Pinellas County businessman Bill Edwards — a member of the host committee's executive committee and a partner with Jones in a bid to buy Channelside Bay Plaza — as a "phenomenal help."

Afterward, Edwards declined to say just how much he has helped, though he said his support does not exceed $2 million.

As the convention draws closer, the pace of fundraising will accelerate, said host committee chairman Al Austin. Already, Rick Santorum's decision to suspend his campaign has added a degree of certainty that seems to be helping some donors make up their minds.

"I think that's going to make things a lot easier," Austin said. "A couple of people who had shown an interest before now are calling us to set up appointments."

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

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