GOP convention deficit just a sign of the times

Weak economy, talk of campaign finance reform deter corporate help for gathering

August 11, 2008|By Los Angeles Times

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Republican Party officials have developed a well-deserved reputation for planning ever more extravagant national conventions, each built on the party's ability to secure abundant cash.

But just six weeks before the convention - at which Sen. John McCain of Arizona is to accept his party's nomination - executives found they were about $10 million short of what they needed for a party they had already cut back.

Officials say that they have already secured most of the funds and that meeting budget needs was never in doubt. Still, this previously unknown - and rather unusual - last-minute GOP fundraising headache underscores the challenges facing both parties: A souring economy, complex campaign finance rules and the candidates' talk of reform has discouraged participation by corporations and the lobbyists who advocate for them.

It also lays bare the pressures facing midsize metropolitan areas like the Twin Cities and Denver, where local business leaders must join home-state elected officials to plead for tens of millions in donations from companies and wealthy individuals to cover costs.

Now, officials from both parties are joining campaign finance reform advocates in seeking change.

"It's a challenge for midsize cities to raise this kind of money for conventions like these," said Jeff Larson, a GOP political consultant who chairs the Twin Cities' convention host committee.

Larson stresses that all of the Minnesota host committee's obligations and deadlines have been met and that fundraising overall is now in good shape. Still, he said, "I think both the RNC and the DNC recognize they are going to have to find a way to do things a little differently in the future."

To make up the last $10 million, Larson and the rest of the Twin Cities host committee relied in part on a wealthy out-of-town GOP donor: Robert Wood "Woody" Johnson IV, owner of the New York Jets and heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune.

Johnson, a top fundraiser for McCain's presidential campaign, had already been helping the host committee informally. But on July 18, the local committee named him as the local committee's "national finance chair." Convention funding sources said that Johnson, who has family in Minnesota, tapped other wealthy donors and was able to raise millions quickly.

The Democrats' convention finance problems, more severe and more familiar than the GOP's, have been evident for months.

The Democrats in Denver - unlike their Twin Cities counterpart - had failed to meet publicly set fundraising benchmarks. And Denver's woes continue as the party struggles to cover the costs of a final-night speech by Obama, the presumptive nominee.

Sources familiar with Republican convention financing said a problem of this scale hasn't hit the GOP since 1996, when convention planners in San Diego scrambled to raise $3 million to $5 million - in the six weeks before former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole received the nomination.

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