The GOP’s Reliance on Mega Donors Is Becoming a Liability

Republicans haven’t developed a grassroots model that survive on small donations.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United was handed down in 2010. In response, “superPACs and other independent groups dumped more than $1 billion into the 2012 election, largely on behalf of Republicans.” They spent most of that money flooding the television airwaves with negative ads about Democrats.

Then along came a service employee who surreptitiously video-taped a speech by Mitt Romney to big donors in which the candidate talked about the 47 percent of Americans who vote for Democrats because they are dependent on the government for freebies. That videotape went viral and is perhaps one of the main contributors to Romney’s loss in 2012. And it didn’t cost the Democrats a dime.

That didn’t stop Republicans from their reliance on superPACs.

“We are not about just one year or one election or one issue,” said Tim Phillips, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, which spent more than $190 million in the two-year cycle — a large share on ads pummeling Obama on the debt and his energy policies. “It’s about building for the long haul, and that’s what we’re committed to doing.”

AFP’s contributors are not discouraged, he said. “They tell us this is a long ballgame.”

Fast forward to the 2016 Republican primary and initially all of the big money was on Jeb Bush, whose superPACs raised over $100 million. We all know how that one turned out. The narcissistic bully in the race grabbed millions of dollars worth of free media, while he raised almost nothing in contributions.

Heading into the 2018 midterms, Elena Schneider wrote that Democrats had found their answer to the Koch brothers.

Hundreds of thousands of online donors are pouring gobs of cash into Democratic House campaigns at an accelerating clip — a bulwark against a late-summer advertising assault that Republicans hope could save their majority.

That was made possible by the fact that in 2004, a couple of techies created something called ActBlue.

Where big-dollar fund-raising is typically done behind closed doors with well-connected bundlers and showy, costly fund-raisers, ActBlue is just the opposite. It is an Internet-based political action committee that lets Democratic candidates use their Web site as a portal to collect donations, making fund-raising cheap, and, for donors, as simple as a click of a mouse.

In 2018, ActBlue helped Democratic candidates raise over $700 million—which, unlike superPAC money, went directly to individual campaigns.

In addition to providing the funding necessary to compete, it is important to note the advantages of small dollar donations. SuperPACs are limited in how much they can contribute directly to a campaign and are not allowed to coordinate their efforts with a particular candidate. They also pay much higher rates to run television commercials, so they get a lot less bang for their buck.

Because Democrats were so successful in raising small donations online via ActBlue, the Republicans created something similar in 2019 that they call WinRed. But it’s not working out very well for them.

Last month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee prepared a slideshow for Senate chiefs of staff full of bleak numbers about the party’s failure to compete with Democrats on digital fundraising. For anyone not getting the message, the final slide hammered home the possible end result: a freight train bearing down on a man standing on the tracks.

The slideshow, obtained by POLITICO, painted a grim picture of the GOP’s long-running problem. Republican senators and challengers lagged behind Democrats by a collective $30 million in the first quarter of 2020, a deficit stemming from Democrats’ superior online fundraising machine. Since then, Democrats’ fundraising pace accelerated further, with the party’s challengers announcing huge second-quarter hauls last week, largely driven by online donors giving through ActBlue, the party’s preferred fundraising platform.

Republican strategists suggest the problem is that their candidates haven’t done the legwork that is necessary to build a grassroots base of small donors. But at least one Republican who lost in 2018 suggests that the problem goes much deeper.

Many candidates have long assumed that “95 percent of the money you would raise would be from large donors, political action committees. Online fundraising was just to check the box,” said former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who lost his seat in 2018 after being outraised by his Democratic opponent. “For a long time, members didn’t understand the potential of online fundraising.”

With tax cuts and deregulation as their only real agenda, Republicans have built their fundraising campaigns around the desires of their big donors who support their election via superPACs. That means that they haven’t had to pay attention to the grassroots in order to build the kind of small donations that come via online fundraising. Therefore, to fully utilize a platform like WinRed requires them to change their entire culture. That’s why they’re struggling.

As the authors of the Politico piece point out, that doesn’t guarantee the ultimate success for Democrats in November.

The money guarantees Democrats nothing heading into November 2020. But with President Donald Trump’s poll numbers sagging and more GOP-held Senate races looking competitive, the intensity of Democrats’ online fundraising is close to erasing the financial advantage incumbent senators usually enjoy. That’s making it harder to bend their campaigns away from the national trend lines — and helping Democrats’ odds of flipping the Senate.

Anyone who follows Senators Brian Schatz and Chris Murphy on Twitter has noticed how they’re using social media to build on the advantage Democrats enjoy with small donors.

Even tweets can bring in significant cash: Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) have started posting tweets about Senate candidates as a way to boost their profiles and raise money. All told, they have raised more than $600,000 for 8 Democrats through Twitter, including six figures apiece for Iowa’s Greenfield and Georgia’s Raphael Warnock.

“This money is essential,” Schatz said in an interview, noting that the national parties always have to pick and choose where to spend their money. He continued: “The ability for the grassroots to make sure that we are funded in Texas, and South Carolina, and Kansas, and Montana and Georgia 1 and 2, is essential.”

You don’t have to be a Senator to raise that kind of money for Democratic candidates. Charles Gaba, who is known for his analysis of Obamacare and healthcare issues, has raised over $500,000 from small donors via ActBlue for candidates at the federal and state level in 2020. That’s why the message from Schatz is both simple and consistent: “Pick a race.”

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.