Raising money a tough challenge in bleak economy
Fall typically is popular time for raking in funds
In Maryland's political hemisphere, autumn is marked not by colorful foliage and chillier temperatures, but by its unofficial designation as peak fundraising season.
State lawmakers facing a ban on fundraising during the 90-day legislative session, which begins in January, try to squeeze in events between the start of the school year and the winter holidays, when people are less likely to donate money.
And with the recession causing businesses and families to tighten their belts, politicians are focusing more attention on how they get their money and from whom.
"Everyone's concerned about people hitting their [contribution] limits, and with the economy, it will be more difficult," said Stephanie M. Mellinger, a Democratic fundraiser whose clients include Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach and a number of the chamber's other Democrats.
"I think it's going to take a little extra hard work to get the same amount of contributions you got previously."
Incumbents and challengers typically have a fundraising strategy that incorporates inexpensive and high-dollar events in an effort to reach a broad base. This fall's calendar includes a blend of barbecues, bull roasts and banquet hall receptions.
Del. Ronald A. George raised about $12,000 at a $100-a-head summer event and is scheduled to hold a $125-per-person business reception Wednesday in Annapolis. After next year's legislative session, he plans to put together a few inexpensive events to connect with those who have less to give.
Donations have been more plentiful, but have come in smaller denominations, said George (R-Dist. 30) of Arnold.
The ailing economy has caused a noticeable decline in corporate and special-interest donations, said Mellinger, who also counts some national lawmakers among her clients. Businesses are downsizing, and there are fewer employees to contribute to companies' political arms, while nonprofit groups also are experiencing a downward trend in donations, she said.
That eventually will trickle down to candidates, if it hasn't already.
As of Thursday, George said he has three hosts and about a half-dozen sponsors for the business reception, which cost $1,000 and $500, respectively.
Companies that previously have donated are now facing smaller profit margins and higher costs, such as the increase in the rates employers will have to pay to replenish the state's shrinking unemployment insurance trust fund.
"It's tougher this time to ask people to do that because everybody's tight, everybody's hurting," George said.
On the flip side, the ongoing federal health care debate has engaged a lot of first-time donors and encouraged veteran activists to dig deeper into their pockets. In the end, George believes it might even out, but it's too early to know for sure.
Gov. Martin O'Malley has been particularly active on the fundraising front garnering money in New York and Florida in recent weeks even though his toughest potential GOP challenger, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has yet to decide on his political course.
"While the economy certainly weighs heavily over everybody these days, we've seen a very positive response to the governor's fundraising for his re-election," said O'Malley's campaign manager Tom Russell.
O'Malley (D) was slated to hold a reception Thursday evening at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, with tickets starting at $500 and rising to $4,000 for a VIP reception.
Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot also has not taken his foot off the fundraising pedal, despite learning over the summer that term-limited Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. will not challenge him next year.
In the past month, Franchot (D) has held two low-dollar barbecues in Baltimore and Montgomery counties. On Wednesday, he hosted a $100-a-head cocktail reception at a swanky Italian trattoria in Annapolis.
For Democratic fundraiser Rachael Rice, fall is always the busiest time of year. Between late September and early November, her Bel Air-based firm will have put together 17 events. While many companies are scaling back, she just hired a new creative director to help manage the pre-election year frenzy.
Earlier this year, Rice worried that the economy would hamper her clients' ability to raise money. Once things settle down at the end of the year, Rice plans to analyze the recession's impact on her clients' contributions. But, she's "been pleasantly surprised by how well things have gone."
"We've had to look further and dig a little deeper to get the money," she added.
One new dynamic that Mellinger has noticed is the growing number of challengers who are reaching out to professional fundraisers. Typically, incumbents use the professionals, but in tight times, it's even more difficult for newcomers to raise money.
Rice isn't totally focused on dollars and cents. Her firm develops a client's Facebook page, sends out electronic communications known as "e-blasts" and coordinates non-fundraising events, like the energy forum hosted by House Economic Matters Chairman Del. Dereck E. Davis at Prince George's Community College on Tuesday.
"We're really trying to get our clients to raise their profile with their constituents, because people who are good legislators make good fundraisers," said Rice, pointing to the success of President Barack Obama's Internet program.
Davis (D-Dist. 25) of Upper Marlboro said Rice's team helped organize the educational energy forum, which about 100 people attended, because he used campaign funds to pay for the facility rental and informational mailers.
"If you're out there doing your job, working hard for the people, your resume will speak for itself," he said.