Van Dongen has also earned a reputation as one of the top fundraisers on K Street. He has bundled money for every Republican president since Reagan, as well as fundraising for Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio’s presidential campaigns. He’s now raising money for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.
Van Dongen’s fundraising efforts were crucial to helping Republicans retake the House in 1994, said former Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), who led the National Republican Congressional Committee at the time.
“There weren’t many people on K Street who gave a rat’s patoot about Republicans winning the House” at the time, Paxon said. “He did.”
He also raised money for John Thune, a former Republican congressman at the time, in 2004 in his successful effort to defeat Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.
Van Dongen also earned a reputation as a gourmand who wined and dined top Republicans in Washington and New York.
Former House Speaker John Boehner, who met Van Dongen as a freshman congressman, compared Van Dongen’s love of fine dining to his own affection for golf and red wine.
“Food, food, food,” Boehner said in an interview. “This man loved to eat good food.”
Van Dongen worked his way into a position of influence from his perch at the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, the relatively small Washington trade group he’s led since 1979.
“It was not a grade-A trade association” when Van Dongen took over, said Wayne Valis, a White House aide to Reagan who worked closely with Van Dongen. “He just made it that way. He convinced his members to go all out.”
Van Dongen worked with Jim Baker, the White House chief of staff, and Elizabeth Dole to rally K Street in support of Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts. He helped pioneer the concept of assembling business coalitions to bring pressure to bear on Congress.
Van Dongen’s unequivocal embrace of the Republican Party was a somewhat surprising decision for trade group in the early 1980s. While Republicans had an edge in the Senate at the time, Democrats had controlled the House for decades and commanded a massive majority. Many trade associations even now give to members of both parties in Congress and steer clear of supporting presidential candidates.
But Van Dongen decided early that the most effective way to advance the interests of the distributors he represented was to help elect Republicans.
“Our thinking is if in fact it is correct that the most important thing you can do is to try toget the right people elected to begin with, then the most important election is the president of the United States,” he said. “So why leave that one on the table?”
Van Dongen plans to step down Nov. 30. Spencer Stuart is handling the search for his successor.