Nobody Noticed, But 2017 is The Year of the Small Donor

In two special House races this year, small donors were the largest source of funds. Is this the dawn of an era of small donor activism?

June 9, 2017

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

The bang-the-tin-cup emails from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) arrive several times a day with the desperate intensity of a nine-year-old pleading for an advance on his allowance. The tone of the subject line ranges from the ecstatic ("Trump LOSES") to the apocalyptic ("TERRIBLE loss"). But the body of the email always harps on the same theme: The fate of Jon Ossoff -- the Democratic nominee in Georgia's special election -- entirely depends on whether you immediately send a small contribution ("Will you pitch in $1 before the triple match expires at midnight to elect Democrats like Jon?").

On the Republican side, Marco Rubio chimed in with an urgent email on behalf of Republican Karen Handel, accurately describing Georgia as "the center of the political universe right now." Warning that "the liberals are fired up unlike anything we've seen in recent memory," Rubio calls on conservatives "to step up when our name is called" with a $25 contribution for Handel's final ad buys.   

"With the polls tight and turnout hard to forecast, it is risky, to predict the outcome of the June 20 run-off election to fill the House seat in the northern Atlanta suburbs vacated when Tom Price joined Donald Trump's Cabinet. But one thing is certain -- the contest between Ossoff and Handel will not be decided based on last-minute fund-raising, no matter how frantic the online pressures on political partisans.

It turns out that Ossoff himself has raised a jaw-dropping $15 million in the last two months with the DCCC kicking in another $4.3 million. According to the FEC, roughly two-thirds of Ossoff’s total money for the campaign has come from donors giving less than $200. Handel reported contributions for the last two months of $3.8 million (normally a solid total) with GOP Super PACs and other Republican groups kicking in at least another $9 million in TV spending. 

The battle in Georgia-6 has already become the most expensive House race in history. A conservative estimate is that the candidates and the outside groups supporting them will have spent more than $40 million by Election Day. Putting this number in perspective, this was more than was spent in 31 Senate races in 2016, including contested battles in Ohio, Missouri and North Carolina. 

We are long past the point of sermons on the high cost of politics, especially since Hillary Clinton's campaign spent $564 million -- and still lost. And the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch (instead of Merrick Garland) means that pixies are more likely to gambol on the White House grounds than the Supreme Court is to overturn Citizens United.

The Trump administration continually reminds us of the corrosive effects of Super PACs and other forms of unregulated fund-raising on public policy. After the president withdrew from the Paris agreement, the New York Times, in an article by Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton, chronicled how campaign contributions by the Koch brothers and other energy interests turned the Republicans into the party of climate-change deniers. But, as much as the power of big money is lamentable, there appears to be no obvious alternate in 2017 politics other than to rail about the injustice of it all to the heavens.

This bleak political environment blinds us to a stunning reality about 2017 politics. Even beyond Ossoff, small donors have contributed a massive amount to 2017 House races. In Montana, with minimal help from the national Democratic Party, Rob Quist (a folk singer who had never held public office) corralled more than $3 million in just 10 weeks. Totals like this suggest that the $228 million that Bernie Sanders raised for the 2016 primaries was not an aberration.

The problem, of course, is that this torrent of small donor financing requires a national media spotlight on a specific race. In normal times, liberal donors in Beverly Hills or Brookline do not give much thought to the identity of the House member who represents Dunwoody, Georgia. But right now the battle in Georgia-6 is the only game in town for online contributors spurred to activism by the Trump presidency.

The potential for a new bipartisan politics fueled by small contributions dates back to the 1960s when conservative activist Richard Viguerie first popularized political direct-mail appeals. George McGovern in 1972 was probably the first major liberal beneficiary of this merging of emotional pleas and primitive computer technology.

As a reporter chronicling the 2004 presidential race, I remember the amazement when Howard Dean broke every fund-raising record with a crude thermostat to measure progress on his campaign website. The fantasy then was that the internet would equal or surpass the power of direct mail without the heavy expenditures for postage. Now, with more than a decade's hindsight, we know that online fund-raising can be a powerful spigot for both liberals and conservatives. But no one in politics has yet figured out how to keep the spigot flowing on a consistent basis.

The hope is that this politicized decade may spur a level of small-donor activism that spills over to ordinary congressional races in 2018 and beyond. Imagine, for example, if the kind of money that Bernie Sanders raised in 2016 were spread over 50 competitive House districts. This is not only a liberal cause. An equally determined right-wing uprising (like the Tea Party in 2010) might, in theory, free many Republicans from the embrace of the Koch brothers and allied energy interests.

Yes, it sounds quixotic. But the political money required to combat special interests has already manifested itself in both parties. The trick is to keep priming the pump (a phrase that Donald Trump claims to have invented) after the passions of 2017 fade away. 

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