WASHINGTON – There were no six-figure corporate donors on the program at congressional Republicans' gala, but even in the new world of smaller checks President Bush helped the GOP raise $22 million for its fight to maintain control of Congress.
The $2,500-a-ticket event for the National Republican Congressional Committee (search) and its Senate counterpart Wednesday night brought in the most of any GOP or Democratic fund-raiser since new campaign finance restrictions took effect in November.
Last spring, when unlimited contributions were still legal, Bush helped raise a record $30 million-plus for the Republican National Committee and the two congressional committees at each of two galas.
At those events, "soft money," unlimited contributions from corporations, labor unions and others, was permitted. Under the new law, the national parties can raise only "hard money," donations of up to $25,000 a year from individuals and political action committees.
"This is what John McCain always said would happen - and I always wondered if he was actually right - that we would be better off [than Democrats] under the new campaign rules because we have shown a better ability to raise hard money," said Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, referring to the Arizona GOP senator who co-sponsored the law. "But it won't take long for Democrats to adapt."
Black ties were optional at the Washington Convention Center event, and Bush opted for business attire - a dark suit and silver tie. Those sharing the head table with him were asked to do the same.
"It's always nice to have a nice quiet dinner with a few friends," he said after entering the room to standing ovation.
As at past party galas, however, Bush did not stay to eat. He left after a wide-ranging, 20-minute speech that touched on tax cuts, terrorism, the war in Iraq, education and trade policy, among other topics.
"Our most urgent mission in the months ahead is to strengthen this economy," Bush said to applause. "The role of government is not to create wealth, but the environment in which work and entrepreneurship pay off."
A gala record of about 7,500 people attended, roughly 2,500 more than last year. The fund-raiser was the first Bush has headlined since a December event for a Louisiana Senate candidate.
In past years, the two congressional committees split the total raised. This year each was responsible for its own fund raising.
The House leadership asked its members to raise at least $25,000 each or sell at least one 10-seat table.
Ohio Rep. Bob Ney, chairman of the House Administration Committee (search), said he raised $50,000. He estimated he had to make about 30 calls to meet his goal, about a third more than it took when soft money was allowed.
Ney said he continues to oppose the new ban on corporate and union contributions, but added that the total raised showed "the Republican Party's thriving, with or without soft money."
The adjustment has been tougher for the Democratic Party, (search) which has relied much more heavily on soft money. New fund-raising reports compiled by the tracking service PoliticalMoneyLine show the disparity was biggest in the House last month, with the NRCC raising nearly $8.3 million compared with about $1.5 million for its Democratic counterpart.
NRCC spokesman Carl Forti said that for the gala, the party reached out to potential donors across the country rather than relying as heavily on the usual Washington crowd. One contributor, investment banker Larry Simon of San Diego, said he noticed a little difference.
"I see people at my table, a single woman from San Francisco, she's a real estate agent, people I wouldn't necessarily think would be here," said Simon, who contributed $5,000 with his wife to attend the event. "You still have a lot of important supporters, and important people and corporate people here."
AOL chairman Steve Case, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans and several members of Congress were in the crowd.
Sam Darmo, an Iraqi-American and real-estate broker from Phoenix who is part of a group pushing to give Christians a voice in the new Iraqi government, said he bought a ticket to have a chance to lobby lawmakers. He said he didn't view the admission price as excessive.
"With Saddam Hussein, there was no lobbying," Darmo said.