Navigating the special interest solar system at the 2016 RNC

by and
A statue spelling "Cleveland" near Lake Erie.
Cleveland, the site of the 2016 Republican National Convention. (Photo credit: Sunlight Foundation/Instagram)

There are subtle layers of influence that exist beyond the convention hall. If the convention hall at Quicken Loans Arena is the Sun — the center of the RNC solar system — then the planets that surround it are an almost endless list of parties, fundraisers, policy discussions and media hubs. Most, if not all of these events, are somehow underwritten by corporate money, either directly or indirectly

Take the Western Caucus Foundation — a nonprofit that is committed to “educating public policy makers … to preserve the West’s dynamic and unique culture” — which held a dinner event and happy hour this week just steps away from the convention hall. Events like this bring out the delegates, legislators and other power players in a big way. Regional pride and a shot at a conversation with their local member of Congress — plus good barbecue — is enough to make sure these events are well attended.  

These events put on by caucuses and their respective nonprofit arms are a way that various interests try get the attention of lawmakers around issues important to them. It is often unclear where the funding comes from since they do not have to disclose their donors. But these affiliated nonprofits provide services, with some rules and oversight form Congress, such as event planning, policy help and public relations work. Sam Brodey of MinnPost wrote a great report earlier this year about the Sportsmen’s Caucus and its nonprofit foundation.

Then there are events with no clear agenda other than promoting the sponsor’s brand out there to a very targeted audience. Companies and industry groups often foot the bill for different hubs set up by the likes of Twitter, Facebook, The Washington Post, Politico, and The Hill. These provide varying amounts of free food, drinks and swag, or just a place for journalists to get away from the crowds on the streets.

And there are high-powered corporate sponsors like AT&T. On top of being a sponsor, AT&T’s logo is prominently displayed on flags and banners throughout town.

Corporate sponsorship of events here takes a lot of forms, too. Murray Energy, a coal company based in Ohio, sponsored an event for the Republican Attorney General Association on Tuesday and another event for the Illinois delegation featuring Illinois-based energy companies. Until recently, Murray was under investigation by the Federal Election Commission over allegations that it pressured employees to attend political events. (The company also recently gave $100,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC.) Other big names like Walgreens and Johnson & Johnson sponsored the “Inspiring Women Luncheon,” along with groups that promote female Republican candidates.

But sometimes there’s a more direct connection between the event and the industry the sponsoring company is hoping to promote. The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) held a “Day on the Water” event on Lake Erie. (Though it actually remained in the harbor while we were there because of security surrounding a nearby Trump appearance.) Manufacturers showcased their marine craft at the harbor, allowing attendees to sit on the boats and eat a free food-truck lunch. But we know there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The trip on the water was meant to be an opportunity, according to one of the organizers, for the NMMA to take both RNC delegates and members of Congress – who might be dealing with legislation that helps or hurts the boating industry – and “show them [the] industry first-hand.”

Notably missing from the many of the convention meetings, gatherings and soirees? Voters. While the influence industry is hard at work to curry favor and gain access for corporate players and big-dollar donors, there’s not much opportunity for the public to see what’s going on.

Whether it’s a policy discussion, a fundraiser or a boat party, there are many ways to peddle influence, curry favor and gain access at the GOP convention. Stay tuned next week as we get ready to head to Philadelphia for Democratic convention.