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Democrats court big donors with VIP access to lawmakers at Super Bowl, concerts

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Democrats worked hard to portray themselves as the party of the middle class during the recent fiscal cliff standoff, but they're good at courting Americans with big checkbooks, too.

In fact, congressional Democrats are offering VIP access to lawmakers at a Valentine's Day lunch for the doting donor, a Lady Gaga or Pink concert for the music lover or two tickets to the Super Bowl for the sports enthusiast, according to a list of 56 fund-raisers scheduled for early 2013 that was obtained by the Washington Guardian.

All that is required to rub elbows with the Democratic brass is a check somewhere between $500 and $10,000.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the fund-raising arm for House Democrats, maintains the fund-raising calendar. While sensitive to the party's platform to help the middle class, the DCCC also doesn't want to handicap its members from raising cash the old fashioned way - with splashy events and ticket prices far outside the average American's budget, officials said.

DCCC spokeswoman Emily Bittner confirmed the high-dollar events but insisted the party also tries to raise money from smaller donors, too.

“The DCCC provides a public list of members’ events as a service to the Democratic caucus," she said. "In 2012, the DCCC itself raised more money from grassroots supporters and online donors than ever before in history – and dramatically outpaced our counterparts at the NRCC in grassroots support.”

The calendar of events shows just how access-for-donations enriches lawmakers' campaign treasuries.  The highest priced item was $10,000 for two tickets to join Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, at the Super Bowl in New Orleans next month. For $2,500, donors can get to see Lady Gaga with Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., while $1,500 nabs a contributor a chance to watch Pink in concert with Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla.

Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., offers his donors a chance to join him at a professional basketball game for $1,500. The bad news is the host team is the woeful Washington Wizards.

The Washington Guardian contacted the offices of Conyers, Moore and Deutch, but they did not return calls seeking comment.

Of course, Republicans have their own program for aggressive fund-raising events. But unlike Democrats, they are much more muted about suggesting campaign money corrupts politics.

For most of the 2012 election and the subsequent fiscal cliff drama in December, Democrats repeatedly accused the GOP of being out of touch with the middle class and in the grips of wealthy, pro-business donors. "If we're going to have policies that support the great middle class, which is the backbone of our democracy, we have to change the politics," House Minority Nancy Pelosi declared a few months ago in advocating reforms to reduce big donations.

But despite her rhetoric, Pelosi is offering herself as one of the big draws for the DCCC, hosting a breakfast at the swanky W Hotel in D.C. that will set back a contributor $2,500 for a good seat.

For campaign finance watchdogs, the DCCC fund-raising list obtained by the Washington Guardian provides a rare public window into a world where lawmakers must raise cash almost daily, and where VIP access is the most common bait, even for Democrats who often rail against the corrupting influence of money on politics.

"You have to play the game as the rules are written," said Viveca Novak, spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a non-partisan group that tracks campaign donations and spending. "If you have to raise X amount of dollars for your reelection race, you’re going to do what you have to do."

Sometimes getting large donations from a single source is easier than trying to raise small amounts from hundreds or thousands of diverse sources, she said.

The demand for money is great.  According to CRP, 2012 was the most expensive election in history.  Nation-wide candidates spent an estimated $6 billion dollars buying ads, running speeches and meet-and-greets, hiring workers and funding other campaign activities.  The presidential election is believed to have accounted for $2 billion of that tab.

The hunt for campaign donations is particularly intense and unforgiving for House members, who must run for re-election every two years. And that can leave constituents feeling a bit neglected, Novak said.

"They’re spending more and more hours of their day fundraising when you kind of hope when your elected representatives are out there making laws or deliberating or carrying on the business of the country," she said.

But it's the way of doing business in D.C., and Novak said change is unlikely despite all the rhetoric.

"Certainly it’s not going to stop anytime soon unless there’s some kind of groundswell for changing the campaign finance system," she said.  "I don’t see that happening."

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