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September 16, 2014

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Hedge funders draw 2 Republican stars to Las Vegas

Two high-profile Republicans on Friday courted hedge fund executives at an election-year conference in a glitzy hotel, drawing criticism from Democrats eager to link the GOP to Wall Street as they try to defend their Senate majority.

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, now a New Hampshire Senate candidate, were the only current or former elected officials featured at the three-day gathering hosted by hedge fund firm SkyBridge Capital, which brings some of the financial industry's wealthiest men and women to Las Vegas every year. While technically a nonpartisan affair, the crowd was largely Republican, and the host, Anthony Scaramucci, is a prominent GOP donor.

Continuing his recent focus on poverty as he weighs a 2016 presidential bid, Ryan delivered brief remarks Friday describing financial industry executives as "part of the solution" to the problem of poverty — as investors, philanthropists and job creators.

"There is incredible untapped potential among our poor," said Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman and his party's 2012 vice presidential nominee.

Brown, meanwhile, made a more political speech. He referred hedge fund executives to his campaign website and urged them to get involved "right now."

"You have a role to play," said Brown, who was paid to speak, "whether it's in the think tanks, whether it's in public policy issues, whether it's drawing a line in the sand and supporting people that you feel will bring forth your agenda and your concerns."

The appearances offered Democrats a fresh opportunity to launch political attacks against two men who figure prominently in the GOP's short- and long-term plans.

In a challenging political climate, Democrats are fighting to retain their Senate majority in a midterm battle that could transform the final two years of President Barack Obama's presidency. Democrats have long focused on Republican connections to big business, which they say comes at the expense of the middle class.

Brown's campaign appeared to be sensitive to the linkage.

He canceled a scheduled appearance on a Thursday panel with Republican strategist Karl Rove and David Plouffe, President Barack Obama campaign manager, entitled, "American Beauty? Money, Power and Politics." Instead, Brown delivered a speech Friday that covered his concern about Obama's foreign policy and his desire to repeal the president's health care overhaul.

Ryan is the architect of the House Republican budget blueprint that seeks to dramatically re-shape federal programs such as Medicaid and Medicare to help cut federal spending. At just 44, he could be a presidential contender for years to come, even if he decides not to run in 2016.

Brown's ties to Wall Street may be more significant in the short-term. A longtime Massachusetts resident, he recently launched a campaign against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., becoming a significant player in the GOP's broadened push to reclaim the Senate majority in November.

Shaheen's campaign issued a fundraising appeal on Friday attacking Brown's attendance at the conference, where he spent three days this week. Set inside the Bellagio hotel and casino in the heart of the Las Vegas strip, the gathering featured a private concert by Lenny Kravitz, appearances by Hollywood star Kevin Spacey and basketball legend Magic Johnson, and a poolside masquerade ball Brown attended with his wife.

"What happens in Vegas this week won't stay in Vegas — it'll follow Brown right back to New Hampshire in the form of more nasty and deceptive Super PAC attacks on Jeanne," reads Shaheen's fundraising appeal.

A spokesman confirmed that Brown was paid to appear at the conference, but declined to say how much or to clarify whether he had attended any fundraising events during the stay.

Brown's connection to the financial industry was a key issue in his unsuccessful 2012 Massachusetts re-election bid.

He quickly became one of Wall Street's most popular senators after winning the special election to replace the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. Brown received more money from the securities and investment industry than any other member of Congress in 2011 and 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The former Massachusetts senator took in $2.6 million from the industry, almost twice as much as the second highest member, House Speaker John Boehner.

It's unclear, however, whether Brown's Wall Street ties are as significant in the New Hampshire Senate race as they were in Massachusetts, when he was up against Wall Street nemesis Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Shaheen, by contrast, is viewed somewhat favorably by the financial industry.

"Shaheen has engaged in a few issues that were in line with our thinking," said James Ballentine, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association, which was among several financial industry groups donating to her campaign in recent months. Since 2013, Shaheen has taken in more than $136,000 from the securities and investment industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Meanwhile, Brown emphasized his desire to stay in touch with the wealthy audience, sharing his Twitter handle and campaign website address.

"Certainly we'd appreciate the opportunity to connect," he said.

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