As Hurricane Gustav battered the Gulf Coast, lobbyists, corporations and industry groups scrambled to put a solemn face on their glitzy GOP convention parties and still revel with big donors, delegates and members of Congress.
Few party hosts outright canceled their receptions and galas this week. Instead, some atoned by tapping well-heeled and not-so-well-heeled partygoers for contributions toward hurricane relief for Gulf Coast states.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain called for only essential opening-day convention activities on Monday. And while speeches were canceled, most of the hot-ticket parties appeared ready to go on with their shows.
"We could have canceled, but talk about a waste of resources," said Frank Coleman, senior vice president at the Distilled Spirits Council, which was co-hosting a party with the Daimler Co. and The Hill newspaper.
The council was among the first to consider the fundraising option. Coleman said hosts began to keep an eye on potential hurricane weather patterns last week. With the help of a co-sponsor who knew the director of the Minnesota Red Cross, the fundraising deal was sealed. The party, originally billed as the Spirits of Minneapolis, was changed to the Spirits of the Gulf Coast.
"We had paid for catering, paid for the venue — everything was paid for," Coleman said. "This is putting it to good use."
The McCain campaign was asking other party sponsors to do the same. The campaign itself planned to turn its own reception thanking fundraisers of the party's Victory '08 fund into a Gulf money raising event.
McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said the Arizona senator wanted to use "all the generous people who are here for a political convention and see if we can turn them into charitable fundraisers."
Convention parties serve multiple purposes as it is. Special interests and their lobbyists can find a relaxed moment to bend a congressman's ear over legislation. Fundraisers for the party or the presidential candidate can use tickets to the hottest events to reward their top donors. And hosts can earn goodwill chits that can help with special access down the road.
Turning parties into fundraisers may help as an antidote to awkward, if not embarrassing, images of Republican merrymaking while a disaster revisits the Gulf Coast.
"All donors understand the stakes," said John Feehery, a Republican consultant and former aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "This is not about taking care of donors, but about taking care of the country — and reputations."
Among the party organizers planning to offer hurricane relief was the lobbying firm of Kearsarge Global Advisors, which was holding a welcoming cocktail party Sunday at the W Hotel in Minneapolis. The firm told its guests that it was donating the same amount of money spent on the reception to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.
The Ohio delegation Sunday night stuck with its plan for a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi River, but also turned the event into a hurricane fundraiser. Ohio's deputy GOP chairman, Kevin DeWine (the former senator's cousin), said it raised $20,000 in "cash, checks and pledges."
"We are kind of taking it day by day and taking our cues from the RNC and John McCain," Kevin DeWine said.
Monday's "Political Chicks a Go Go" party sponsored by Lifetime Networks, Rock the Vote and the conservative women's group RightNOW! planned to collect charitable donations at the door.
The Distilled Spirits council and its party sponsors planned to match the contributions made by party guests.
Whether hosts of all the parties will follow suit is unclear. AT&T, for instance, was sponsoring or hosting a number of parties, including one Sunday for the Republican Main Street Partnership, a leading voice of GOP moderates in Congress. It also was a sponsor of a "Texas Honky Tonk" party featuring country music artist John Rich and a "Young guns" reception on Tuesday
Still unchanged was a Monday concert sponsored by the Service Employees International Union designed to counter the Republican message. That four-hour "Take Back Labor Day" show includes singer-songwriter Steve Earle, English folk musician Billy Bragg, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, hip hop artist Mos Def, and Earle's wife Allison Moorer.
The Creative Coalition, a nonprofit group that connects artists with policy issues, was joining with Target for a concert Wednesday featuring the Charlie Daniels Band. Donor packages to the coalition ranged from $100,000 (25 tickets to the concert) to $10,000 (two tickets).