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Tea Party Freshmen Find Conference a Meal Ticket to Raise Funds

When Utah Republican Mike Lee came to the Conservative Political Action Conference last year, the Senate candidate was at the forefront of a Tea Party movement that he said was “ready for a change” in Washington.

A year later, now-Senator Lee will be the guest of honor at a $250-a-head fundraiser sponsored by corporate lobbyists, including for Microsoft Corp. Tonight’s event, scheduled for the opening day of this year’s three-day conference in Washington, is intended to help pay Lee’s campaign debt.

Other Republicans, including almost one-fifth of the party’s 87 new House members, have planned fundraisers during the annual gathering of party leaders, lobbyists and activists, according to data collected by the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks such events. After vowing to change Congress’s special-interest culture during their insurgent campaigns, many Republican members are embracing Washington’s ways.

“There’s just been fundraisers every week since Congress came into session,” said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation. “A lot of members did say they were coming to Washington to change it. It’s very hard to change it when you are sitting down with the kinds of lobbyists who are interested in keeping the status quo.”

As the party prepares to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012, more than 10,000 activists are expected to attend the conference, which has become an early proving ground for Republican presidential candidates. Among the potential contenders planning to speak are former governors Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour.

‘No Way Inconsistent’

Former governors Sarah Palin of Alaska and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas won’t attend, citing scheduling conflicts.

Coinciding with the conference, dozens of Republican lawmakers will be raising money in Washington, according to Sunlight. The fundraisers kicked off yesterday morning, as activists made their way to the capital for the event, which goes until Feb. 12.

Lee, 39, who’s speaking at the conference tomorrow afternoon, said the fundraisers are in “no way inconsistent” with CPAC or the Tea Party movement, a loose-knit coalition of activists who want to rein in federal government power.

“No one that I’m aware of has said that once someone who believes in the need to change Washington gets to Washington that they shouldn’t do what they can to make sure that their campaign assets are adequately funded,” he said in an interview.

Corporate Sponsors

His fundraising event is sponsored by Microsoft lobbyist Frank Cavaliere and Bryan Cunningham, a lobbyist who Senate records show has represented companies such as Verizon Communications Inc., Southern Co. and AT&T Inc. Neither returned calls for comment. The invitation requests a minimum contribution of $250.

Lee, whose victory over incumbent Utah Senator Bob Bennett in a Republican state convention last year was among the first demonstrations of Tea Party power, said he plans to talk about “a failure to recognize the limits on what the federal government can and should do.”

Freshman Representative Kristi Noem, a rancher from South Dakota who also won her seat with Tea Party backing, was scheduled to host a lunch yesterday at Sonoma, a Capitol Hill restaurant. She’s speaking at the conference today. Noem couldn’t be reached for comment.

Representative Tim Scott, a South Carolina freshman who hosted a $500-a-person event last night at Sonoma, said it was “not connected” to the conference.

“Having fundraisers is what we do in office,” Scott said in an interview.

‘Scotch & Cigars’

Freshman Representatives Dan Benishek of Michigan, Tom Reed of New York and Austin Scott of Georgia invited donors for “Scotch & Cigars” tonight at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, where the CPAC conference is also being held. The entrance fee, which goes as high as $5,000 for a political action committee to be a “patron,” entitles attendees to a “selection of whiskey, wine and cigars as well as good conversation with fellow conservatives.”

Also tonight, the National Rifle Association is hosting a “Laser Shoot-Out & Hard Times Chili” for Texas Representative Michael McCaul at the group’s Washington offices.

Not everyone is planning to raise funds. Pawlenty is opting to hold a free meet-and-greet happy hour tonight at a Washington bar.

Last year, Marco Rubio, then a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Florida, spoke at the conference, and attended a fundraiser. Now a senator, Rubio turned down an invitation to speak, citing several events in his state.

Protest Over Gays

South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a Republican founder of the Senate Tea Party caucus, is also skipping the conference to show support for some socially conservative organizations that are boycotting the event.

Several groups, including the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, and the Heritage Foundation, have refused to participate because GOProud, a group that represents gay Republicans and opposes a federal ban on gay marriage, is participating in the conference.

“FRC has chosen not to partner with a ‘conservative’ event that places the protection of marriage on the same plane as redefining it,” the Family Research Council said in a statement.

Major Platform

Still, CPAC remains a platform for potential candidates to introduce themselves to activists at the event and voters watching on C-Span.

The conference culminates in a presidential straw poll, which has rarely predicted the winner of the primary campaign even as it draws much of the attention. Last year, Texas Representative Ron Paul won. Arizona Senator John McCain skipped the conference in 2007, the year before he became the Republican nominee.

Among other potential presidential contenders joining Pawlenty, Romney, Barbour and Daniels in addressing the crowd will be former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and South Dakota Senator John Thune.

Several newly elected members of Congress will also speak, along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“It’s a self-selected audience of conservative activists, so it’s a good way for someone to reach that audience and see if they can click,” said conference organizer David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

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