Boats and votes: It's election time, and industry's a player

NMMA and MRAA spread money among pro-marine Democrats and Republicans, hoping a relatively small sum goes a long way


The recreational marine industry’s financial contributions to the political stage are fairly modest compared to some political action committee funds, so even the industry’s two biggest trade groups have to be selective in how the money is spent.

Lobbyists for the National Marine Manufacturers Association and the Marine Retailers Association of America say their groups select PAC recipients based on their record of support for boating interests.

The NMMA PAC had total receipts of $315,898 as of June 30 for the 2007-08 election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records. That’s down from about $400,000 in the last election cycle, and even lower than the NMMA’s goal of $500,000.

“It doesn’t make us the biggest PAC, but we are not the smallest,” said Scott Gudes, the NMMA’s vice president of government relations.

Disbursements for the current election cycle total $281,831, with a fairly equal amount going to both political parties.

“Boating is not a partisan issue. Boat manufacturing is not a partisan issue,” said Gudes. “It’s a bipartisan PAC, with support going to Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate. We don’t fund presidential elections.”

Gudes said the NMMA takes several factors into consideration with its political contributions: Members of the Congressional Boating Caucus; candidates who represent a boating or boat manufacturing district or state; whether or not the candidate has been helpful to the industry and the legislation it favors; and members of Congress who have important committee assignments.

The MRAA’s PAC fund is even smaller than the manufacturers’ group, with receipts for the 2007-2008 election cycle totaling $19,925 as of March 31. Since funds are limited, the retail association has to be selective in its PAC disbursements, says Larry Innis, director of government relations. The MRAA representatives occasionally attend fund-raising events for some candidates, but the association does not dole out money on a regular basis.

“We don’t give out money just because it’s an election year,” said Innis. “We’ve been holding onto the money

“The MRAA PAC is very small,” he continued. “We don’t attend national conventions of either party and we don’t give to presidential candidates. Our PAC is for people who work on legislation we favor.”

The retailers’ PAC has only made one contribution so far for the current cycle — $1,000 for Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., in January.

With 39 co-sponsors backing him, the Florida senator introduced The Clean Boating Act of 2008 in March and worked hard to ensure its passage, according to industry lobbyists.

“That was our No. 1 issue,” said Innis. “Nelson has been a good friend to boating and really championed The Clean Boating Act.”

Gudes agreed, saying Nelson is “at the top of the list I have for this year” of legislators who have been good for the industry.

Now with The Clean Boating Act safely passed and signed into law, industry lobbyists can direct their attention to other matters. While Gudes and Innis say political party is not a key factor in determining PAC disbursements, both expressed some concern that the upcoming elections may favor the Democratic Party.

“There are a lot of challenges going into this election,” said Gudes. “One thing that concerns me is the number of people who are retiring who are boating advocates.”

About 30 representatives will be retiring from the House, most of whom are Republicans.

Some boating industry supporters from the Senate also are retiring, including Sen. Charles Hagel, R-Neb. The NMMA PAC contributed $2,000 to Hagel’s campaign in December, only to have it returned because the senator is not seeking re-election.

“There are twice as many Republicans up for re-election as Democrats,” said Gudes. “It’s a numbers game.”

Innis said these races are likely to heat up in the fall. “There is a tendency to vote for incumbents, so if an incumbent retires it’s an open seat and it becomes a horse race,” he said.

“Polls are showing that just about everyone expects a big pickup in seats by the Democrats,” said Gudes.
However, Innis said he doesn’t think it will be enough to squash a filibuster or override a presidential veto, should a Republican win the White House.

The NMMA’s president Thom Dammrich had just one thought on the upcoming elections: “Let’s get it over with so we can get on with life, and with boat buying.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue.


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