WASHINGTON — Democratic fund-raisers are aggressively plying Massachusetts, from Boston steak houses to exclusive events on Cape Cod and the Islands, in what campaign-weary contributors say is the busiest non-election-year summer in memory.
August in an off year in the federal election cycle traditionally has been a quieter time in politics. But a plethora of new political groups combined with an unusual number of Massachusetts races and the steady grind of a never-ending partisan war in Washington are betraying the calendar.
The unrelenting competition for political money — with luncheons costing up to $32,400-a-head — is now so intense that wealthy political financiers and operatives say a sense of fatigue is setting in, making it harder to extract cash from the state’s Democratic ATM.
“We’re being inundated,” said Robert Crowe, a Boston attorney and top Democratic donor who has fielded hundreds of solicitations. “Everyone up for reelection is requesting, along with all their groups.”
Crowe, who recently hosted a Nantucket fund-raiser for Representative Patrick Murphy, a Florida freshman, will hold another island event Aug. 16 for Representative Bill Keating of Massachusetts.
Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York will be shaking the money tree at a Monday luncheon for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at the Capital Grille, in the Back Bay. The committee has already tapped donors at its annual retreat on Martha’s Vineyard in July, where the well-heeled paid for the privilege of dining and discussing policy with senators.
Woody Kaplan, an active fund-raiser, attended the Vineyard retreat but plans to skip Monday’s luncheon. He’ll be vacationing on the Cape. “Lunch in Boston or the beach in Truro? I think the beach is going to win,” Kaplan said.
Bay State donors, accustomed to bankrolling out-of-state campaigns, say they feel especially drained this summer. In addition to the steady slew of Senate races Massachusetts fund-raisers recently slogged through, there is a congressional seat up for grabs, not to mention Boston’s first open mayoral election in a generation and a gubernatorial race next year.
“The average contributor, strident Democrats and Republicans, has just about had it because it’s been a very tortuous campaign after campaign after campaign, and fatigue has set in,” said Tommy O’Neill, son of former House speaker Tip O’Neill. “You’ve got to make three times the phone calls to get one time the amount of money.”
At the end of the month, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Representative Joe Kennedy III will headline a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fund-raiser in the Osterville home of Gerald and Elaine Schuster, Boston philanthropists who were among President Obama’s top fund-raisers. Despite the big-name draws, several regular donors invited to the Cape event say they will not be attending.
“I don’t find it stimulating at all,” said one Democratic fund-raiser who did not want to be named in order to preserve relationships with other donors. “Right now, the Democratic message is very, very diluted. People don’t want to waste their hard-earned money when the conversations are so lacking in specificity.”
Several fund-raisers say donors frustrated by the gridlock in Washington are more reluctant to give. Even George Regan, whose public relations firm represents the Schusters, says he will not attend the couple’s Cape fund-raiser. “I’m so turned off by what’s happening in Washington that it’s my little way of protesting against it,” said Regan, who had donated to both national Democrats and Republicans but is now choosing to focus on state and local races.
Democratic insiders say it’s an increasingly tough sell to persuade a small pool of regular donors to part with their money this early in the election cycle, when their cash can often make the most impact by helping candidates build war chests large enough to ward off challengers. Donors are writing smaller checks, rather than risk reaching individual limits on overall giving this early in the game.
Federal election law caps an individual’s total contributions at $48,600 on all candidates and $74,600 on political action committees and party committees per two-year election cycle. Many donors prefer to wait to see which candidates are viable and invest their money where they think it can make a significant difference. The wealthiest donors can give millions to super PACs, outside groups that became prominent in 2010 and are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money.
Massachusetts Republicans, too, are tailoring their fund-raising strategies, adjusting to donors’ disappointment in recent high-profile losses — among them, Mitt Romney for president and Scott Brown for Senate.
“When you spent a lot of money and come up short, people want to take a little time before they get back into it,” said a Washington Republican fund-raiser with Massachusetts ties, citing fatigue as a reason for the underwhelming financial support for GOP Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez.
Before writing large checks, the fund-raiser said, donors now want to hear a winning game plan, including polling numbers, names of consultants, and key milestones, instead of contributing on blind faith.
Massachusetts’ newly elected senator, Edward J. Markey, has already begun raising money toward his 2014 race. The longtime House member won John Kerry’s seat in a special election, Massachusetts’ third Senate race in three years. Markey raised $9.4 million during the last campaign and has $951,000 left, according to last week’s federal election reports.
Mindful of donor fatigue, Markey is focused on soliciting individual contributors and shying away from holding events until the fall, say those involved in his reelection effort.
Before Markey’s election in June, Democratic donors were coming off an intense sprint for Senator Elizabeth Warren, a fund-raising powerhouse who beat Brown, in part, by raising $42 million, the most among congressional candidates in the country.
Larry Rasky, a Boston-based public relations strategist and major Democratic fund-raiser, said his e-mail is bombarded by an alphabet soup of organizations seeking money: the DNC (Democratic National Committee), DSCC (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee), DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), and OFA (Organizing for Action, a spinoff of Obama’s campaign machine, Obama for America). Then there are the environmental groups, the women’s groups, the gay and lesbian groups, and the labor unions hitting up Democrats. “It’s never empty, once you get on someone’s leadership PAC list,” Rasky said. “You spend a lot of your time unsubscribing from listservs.”
Despite the fatigue, Rasky’s firm recently hosted a fund-raiser in Washington for Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s Senate bid. “If you’re trying to play on the national stage, there are lots of demands,” Rasky said.
Massachusetts has traditionally been one of the biggest export states for Democratic money, with senators and congressmen from around the country flying in to tap the fund-raising machine. In the last election cycle, the Bay State ranked fifth in the country for federal Democratic contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Now, national groups are capitalizing on the state’s back-to-back competitive federal races and making the argument to donors that their money will likely be spent in their backyards. “Here in Massachusetts, it never stops. Everybody just feels besieged and exhausted,” said Philip Johnston, former chairman of the state Democratic Party. “Come 2014, we’ll all be declaring Chapter 11.”