The last chapter of this spellbinding (at least to me) campaign narrative culminated with John McCain’s New Hampshire victory on January 8, 2008. Naturally this gave great impetus to our fundraising. As we moved through the remaining primaries I had the privilege to join John and Cindy at many more victory celebrations. The closer we got to capturing the nomination we found ourselves having serious discussions about the status and future of the campaign’s finance structure. We knew if we were going to compete against the Democrats it would take a serious transformation; one similar to a start-up company going corporate overnight.
Tom Loeffler asked me in late January to take on a more serious role in the restructuring, taking on the number two position as Deputy National Finance Chairman. At the same time, Rick Davis wanted to create a simple avenue for our donors to contribute as large a sum of money as possible to help John. Similar to previous campaigns, a Victory effort was formed at the Republican National Committee. It combined a series of committees under one entity, so an individual could contribute up to $70,100. Lew Eisenberg and Wayne Berman, also fellow National Co-chairmen, were asked to lead up the new Victory fundraising efforts, and they did so with great skill and success.
Tom Loeffler, Susan and I focused on the needed primary and General Election Legal and Accounting Compliance Fund (GELAC) dollars, while Victory focused on the RNC money. Our goal was to raise $50 million primary and GELAC money prior to the convention, plus help Victory raise more than that to support RNC campaign efforts. In fact, we held the first victory event in my office in the Willard Building on April 8, 2008. It was a round table, and we raised $280,000 with only two days notice.
We immediately began to strengthen our finance operation and added programs and structure. We decided to develop a major donor program that recognized the efforts of our fundraisers and created a simple avenue for our new donors to get involved in our leadership structure. We adopted a model similar to the tremendously successful Ranger & Pioneer programs from the Bush/Cheney Campaign and called the groups the Trailblazers for those who would raise $100,000, and Innovators for those who would raise $250,000 in Primary and GELAC dollars.
During this ramp up and afterwards, I spent roughly 75 percent of my time on the campaign, usually starting by attending the 7:30am senior staff meeting, meeting with the finance team, calling regional chairmen, overseeing events, recruiting large donors, and recruiting Trailblazers and Innovators. For us it was a family affair, and I was particularly proud of our daughter, Michelle Olson, who raised over $1 million and served as a model of how to do it. Basically, she organized her own mini-campaign, reaching out to her network to form a leadership committee with titles based on achievement. She held a kick off reception for her group with me as a guest and Senator John Thune as a speaker by phone. She provided materials and training for her team, organized other mini-events, and recruited donors for the larger events that John and Cindy McCain would attend. She was even profiled along with a few others in the Washington Post article on McCain fundraising.
In April, the media began to target lobbyists involved in the campaign’s leadership structure, and in May they focused on Tom Loeffler’s role as Finance Chairman. John McCain and the campaign leadership determined that lobbyists had two choices: resign from lobbying or resign from the campaign. Unable to give up his livelihood or abandon his clients, Tom resigned from the campaign.
Now I have never been or even hired a lobbyist. However, I believe lobbyists perform an important and necessary service in helping to connect legislators to constituents, and the vast majorities are dedicated and honorable people. And while agreeing that lobbyists performing at high levels of campaigns should be prohibited from discussing client policy issues with the leader they serve, I also feel that the media, as well as campaign leadership, overreacted and created a sort of frenzy over the issue. Tom Loeffler should have remained with the campaign.
With Tom’s departure, I was asked to take over the role as defacto National Finance Chairman for the McCain campaign. It added to the load. To manage the programs I divided the country into regions and appointed chairmen to work with the state chairmen already in place. Operationally the committed campaign finance staff managed the program. Sarah Lynch served as the director of the programs, and John Cook, Campbell Engle, and Alex Lawhon served as regional directors for all fundraising activities. The programs took off, and over 1,000 people signed on to raise money for us.
It was extremely rewarding to think back on the year, going from a small fundraising dinner at my home to chairing a finance committee with over 1,000 committed fundraisers. It certainly was a testament to John McCain’s leadership and tireless service to our country. We far exceeded the original $50 million goal for the primary by early July and set out to raise an additional $100 million primary and GELAC money by the election in November.
As an incentive, we offered that anyone who achieved Trailblazer or Innovator status by August 1 would be invited to a two day retreat in Aspen in mid-August (it helps that John likes Aspen). The Aspen retreat was a huge draw and a great success – and a lot of fun. In addition to John and Cindy, we had with us Jack and Joanne Kemp, Governor Mark and Jenny Sanford, Governor Jon and Mary Kaye Huntsman and Senator John and Kimberley Thune. The Kemps and the Sanfords stayed with us. While John was the main attraction, starring at our opening dinners, I’ll never forget Jack Kemp’s rousing talk on the economy at lunch the next day, drawing the group to their feet with his charisma and peroration, or the inspirational talks by Mark Sanford, Jon Hunstman, and John Thune that evening at the reception at our house.
In August we ramped up our focus on the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis/St. Paul. We invited all of our successful Trailblazers, Innovators, Chairman, and major supporters and ended up having over 600 participants to attend through our Friends and Family program. The Friday before the Convention, John announced his selection of Sarah Palin as the GOP’s Vice Presidential nominee. She was a tremendous asset to our fundraising activity. Overnight, our internet fundraising went through the roof, raising several million dollars a day. Becky Donatelli ran this operation with great skill, and it produced superior results through Election Day.
Perhaps my most memorable moment in the campaign came that next week at the Convention. It was an once-in-a-lifetime experience to sit in the Friends and Family Suite as John delivered his nomination address. I was moved by his vision for the country and reminded why we had worked so hard to ensure he made it this far.