Want to know how all that political “soft money” is raised? Here’s an example that came across the e-mail wires recently: Triangle businessman picks up the phone. The call’s from Republican Congressman Tom Davis’ office in Virginia. The pitch is for joining a “small business committee” that will help shape national business policy. The catch is a minimum $360 donation.

Having heard a similar song-and-dance from Republican House leader Dick Armey’s office last year, the local businessman didn’t let things go too far before asking, “is this a bipartisan committee?” There’s a momentary silence on the other end while the aide realizes she’s talking to someone from the other party. “Sorry. Don’t know how you got on our list,” is how the conversation ends.

Steve Schmidt, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, confirmed the existence of the small business “advisory council.” He says it’s meant to serve two functions: “It’s designed to raise money for the national congressional campaign arm for House Republicans, and it’s designed to bring people into the political process.” He won’t give numbers, but says the effort has been “very successful.” So how does someone get on the phone list? Schmidt isn’t saying anything on the record about that. But a high-ranking official in his office puts it this way: “Anyone who donates to a political campaign or a conservative cause, their name winds up on someone’s fundraising list. Those lists are bought and sold all the time.”

And how did a loyal Democrat wind up as a target for the Republican pitch? Well, no system’s perfect.