WASHINGTON - Forget the chicken dinner, the rubbery staple of the political fundraising circuit.
Go alligator hunting with Sen. David Vitter, R-La., on a “Louisiana Bayou Weekend” for a campaign donation of $5,000.
Or spend a weekend in Hayward, Wis., for the Lumberjack World Championships, featuring hometown Republican congressman and former lumberjack champion Sean P. Duffy, for a donation of $1,000 per person or $2,000 per political action committee.
Or join Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., for a “Day at the Races” at Santa Anita Park by ponying up a contribution ranging from $300 to $5,000.
The push to be creative and different - did we mention the food truck serving lobster or the trip to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race? - grows out of the fierce competition for limited campaign dollars, reflected by the more than two dozen invitations that some Washington lobbyists say arrive in the mail every day.
This being Washington, politicians, as always, are looking for ways to stand out.
The invitation to the September alligator hunt sure stood out, said Jon Doggett, vice president of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association. Still, he didn’t attend.
“It would be a little difficult to explain to a group of corn farmers why spending a bunch of their money for me to go hunt alligators is a really good idea,” he said.
It sold out fast anyway, said Republican fundraiser Lisa Spies, who organized the event, which offered contributors an opportunity to have belts and boots made out of the hides.
“When you’re a lobbyist or donor in D.C., you see a gazillion invites,” she said. “So you want something that grabs people’s attention.”
While many politicians, fundraisers and lobbyists are reluctant to speak publicly about fundraising events, the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation offers a sense of the volume of trips, breakfasts, tours and fish fries. It has amassed 18,000 invitations, mostly from congressional candidates, over five years for its Political Party Time web site, and the group’s Kathy Kiely calls that “just a drop in the bucket.”
“What that tells you is how much time is spent on fundraising,” she said. Novel events come out of an effort to “cut through the noise and say, ‘What’s going to make you want to come to my fundraiser instead of somebody else’s?”” she added.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has featured entertainers, from an Elvis impersonator to the late James Brown, at fundraisers to amp up attendance and the take from the dinners.
“I’ve had people come up and say, ‘You seem OK, but I came here to see so-and-so.’ I said, ‘I don’t care why you’re here. I’m glad you came and did you pay?”” he said.
Although politicians have staged unusual fundraisers for years, the impulse to host something unexpected - did we mention the karaoke night or duck hunt? - has gotten stronger in recent years.
At the same time, the average cost of winning a House seat has risen to about $1.6 million in 2012, up from about $845,000 in 2000, according to the Campaign Finance Institute.
And winning a Senate seat? The average cost was $10.3 million in 2012, up from about $7.2 million in 2000.
“Chicken dinners just aren’t going to cut it,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen.
That explains fundraisers held in Las Vegas, the Caribbean and a behind-the-scenes tour at Tiffany’s, though one lobbyist laughed at an invitation for a Senate fundraiser at a Justin Bieber concert, noting the average age of a senator is 62.
“There is no limit, it seems, to pushing the envelope for some kind of new kind of fundraising event,” said Dan Danner, president and chief executive of the National Federation of Independent Business. “There are more and more of them, and they are more and more creative.”
Rep. Susan A. Davis, D-Calif., has featured “Home-Cooked-to-Order Omelets” for campaign donors, doing some of the cooking herself. Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., has hosted comedy nights, joining the comedians with his own stand-up.
“Usually the comedians are funnier,” said a spokesman.
Rep. Michael M. Honda, D-Calif., held the karaoke fundraisers - and joined in the singing - while Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., was responsible for the $500-a-person fundraiser at a food truck serving lobster.
Rep. Grace F. Napolitano, D-Calif., features Mexican food at her fundraisers, cooked with her recipes with ingredients she brings to Washington from California.
“It’s called the best breakfast in town simply because nobody else makes what I make,” she said. “And we use pinto beans, not black beans.”
One of Napolitano’s fellow Democrats, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, said one of her most popular fundraisers featured her cat, Gretzky, which was well known for its appearances on her holiday greeting cards.
“When Gretzky was alive, we had the Come Take Your Photo With Gretzky Fundraiser. We charged $1,000 for a photo with the famous Gretzky. We raised like $70,000,” she said.
A lot of Congress members use these events not just to raise money for themselves but to help their parties battle for control of the House or Senate and to position themselves for chairmanships or other leadership positions. Individuals can contribute up to $2,600 per federal election to a candidate; political action committees can contribute up to $5,000.
“Skyrocketing campaign costs and relatively low contribution limits compel candidates and elected officials to hold more and more fundraisers, and with the proliferation of outside political groups like super PACs, there is even more competition for donors’ attention,” said Brendan J. Doherty, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval Academy who has written about campaign fundraising.
Good-government groups worry about the access to lawmakers that special interests enjoy from weekend fundraisers.
“We definitely have concerns about weekend-far flung-resort type fundraisers because they create a level of access and intimacy with an elected official that you don’t find on the rubber chicken dinner circuit,” said Common Cause’s Mary Boyle.
But Graham, who has held weekend golf getaways at a posh South Carolina resort, disputed that the notion that the events provide any special benefits.
“I’m pretty accessible,” he said. “It’s not that I’m that hard to talk to.”
Some lobbyists, meanwhile, couldn’t care less whether they go to a chicken dinner or an alligator hunt.
As veteran lobbyist Dan Haley put it, “Once you’ve done it once or twice, it gets old.”