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The Class of 2018 Was Powered by Small Donors

But can they withstand the pressure to court special interests to fund their reelections?

November 14, 2018

The cover of the current issue of the New Yorker memorably captures the diversity of gender, race, religion, and life background of the incoming Democratic House class of 2018. In an illustration by Barry Blitt reminiscent of the switch from sepia to Technicolor when Dorothy lands in Oz, the New Yorker depicts a rainbow collection of Democrats opening the door of a room in the Capitol filled with doughy middle-aged men in suits drawn in black and white. 

What many of these upstart House Democrats have in common is that their victories were partly powered by small donations. Now, the question is whether they can withstand the inevitable pressure to adapt to business as usual in Washington by resisting the traditional advice to court big-money contributors.

A prime example is Democrat Sharice Davids, who knocked off a four-term House Republican incumbent in the third district of Kansas (the western Kansas City suburbs). Davids, whose biography is a fascinating amalgam (lawyer, White House fellow under Barack Obama, Native American, lesbian, and former mixed martial arts fighter), had raised nearly $1 million in contributions of $200 or less by mid-October. That was close to 30 percent of her total haul from individual giving. 

From Antonio Delgado in New York’s Hudson Valley to Abigail Spanberger in the Richmond, Virginia, suburbs to Kim Schrier in suburban Seattle, the ability to raise seven-digit sums from small donors emerged in 2018 as the new normal for victorious Democrats. The online fund-raising platform ActBlue was used by Democratic donors this year to funnel well over a half-billion dollars to Senate and House candidates. In fact, at a postelection meeting with GOP high rollers last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell complained that the Republicans had nothing like ActBlue to spur donations from Americans of modest means.

For decades, one of the most compelling arguments for encouraging small-donor financing in politics is that it would dramatically expand the pool of candidates likely to be elected. No longer would the ability to appeal to special interests and to reach out to locker-room buddies at the country club represent the only path to political success.  

That theory has now been vindicated by the dramatic results of the 2018 House elections. By virtually any measure, the incoming 116th Congress will be the most variegated in American history. This burst of diversity — powered by a record level of citizen engagement in midterm voting, volunteering, and contributing — may be Donald Trump’s most surprising contribution to American political life. 

But there is another argument for small-donor fund-raising that has yet to be tested on Capitol Hill. And that is that receiving a significant proportion of campaign funds from small givers, who are motivated by idealism and ideology, changes the behavior of fledgling legislators once they are in Congress. 

Do they maintain their independence by spurning the check-writing, fund-raiser-organizing blandishments of Washington lobbyists, fixers, strategic consultants, and politically connected lawyers? Or do they follow the course of least resistance by going the traditional route on Capitol Hill? 

Taking the well-trod path would mean fighting to get on committees like Ways and Means, Financial Services, and Appropriations that automatically attract generous contributions from business interests. Another element would be spending long hours in a cubicle at the Democratic National Committee calling well-heeled strangers begging for $2,700 contributions (the current maximum) to a 2020 reelection campaign. And the final ingredient would be tailoring congressional voting records to keep future donors happy. 

It is tempting to say that most members of the Class of 2018 have too much integrity to abandon their ideals in the quest for campaign cash. But that glib response fails to consider the heavy countervailing pressures that these new House members will face. 

This week, with the newly elected legislators in Washington for orientation sessions, strategic discussions about holding their seats in 2020 will be a major topic. With many new Democratic House members narrowly winning traditionally Republican suburban districts, party leaders and campaign consultants are likely to issue stern warnings about the need to prepare for deep-pocketed GOP challengers in 2020.

The standard political calculus is that a hefty bank account is the best preparation for the next election. With 2018 campaign spending levels in both parties obliterating previous midterm records, newly elected Democrats in competitive districts will probably be told that they need to have something like $2 to $3 million in the bank by the end of 2019 as reelection insurance. This advice will be accompanied by the stark reminder that any incumbent who lags in early fund-raising is, in effect, holding up a sign that reads,  “Beat Me, I’m Vulnerable.”

The problem is that online fund-raising is likely to offer limited help in 2019 as these first-term House incumbents struggle to reach their ambitious campaign finance goals. Small-donor giving tends to be driven by news events rather than guaranteeing a set amount each quarter. With the 2020 Democratic presidential race overshadowing everything else in politics, the campaign cash needs of congressional incumbents will not immediately be at the top of the political agenda of most online campaign contributors. As a result, the Class of 2018 will be under heavy pressures to do things the old-fashioned way — with regular fund-raisers featuring lawyers and lobbyists at Capitol Hill restaurants. 

Some concession to political reality is unavoidable, since no one goes to Congress with the deliberate intention of losing the next election. But the hope is that the Class of 2018 will regard future fund-raising as a character test — and spurn political money that comes with long dangling strings on it. And, as small donors get used to giving regularly to congressional candidates, the reward for integrity may ultimately be a gusher of online giving in 2020.

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