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Democrats rake in big bucks from small donors, but effect is unpredictable

Why We Wrote This

Online tools allowing voters in, say, Michigan to give to a candidate in Texas are revolutionizing politics. Advocates say the trend will make candidates more accountable to people, not corporations. But skeptics say it may not translate to gains at the ballot box. 

Eric Gay/AP
A boy presents Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Beto O'Rourke with flowers during a campaign stop in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 2, 2018. Congressman O'Rourke raised an eye-popping $38 million, mostly from small donors, during the third quarter – but polls show he still trails incumbent GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.

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For opponents of big money in politics, 2018 feels like the rumblings of revolution. If Rep. Beto O’Rourke – the Democratic nominee running an unlikely campaign against GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas – can raise $38 million in three months without the help of a super PAC, then the possibilities are endless. Suddenly anyone with charisma and an internet connection can run a viable campaign. More importantly, advocates say, average Americans can begin to wield power in politics again because candidates who rely on smaller contributions will be more accountable to those donors than to megacorporations with shadowy agendas. Skeptics, on the other hand, point out that a lot of these donations go to progressive candidates, who by standard political measures are running improbable races at best, as opposed to those competing in expensive races in swing districts. “Uncoordinated donations are a pretty unstrategic way of going about trying to retake the House or the Senate,” says Adam Hilton, a politics professor at Mount Holyoke College. “If all that enthusiasm whipped up is ultimately going to not result in the outcome that people want – like shifting the balance of power in Congress – you might end up deflating people.”

Two weeks before voters head to the polls, the 2018 campaign season continues to shatter records. Candidates are set to break the $5 billion mark by Election Day, putting this cycle on track to becoming the most expensive congressional election season in US history.

The fundraising figures, which favor Democratic candidates, support one prevailing narrative of 2018: that political winds, fanned by anti-Trump fervor, are sweeping Democrats forward in races across the board. From Texas to New York, progressive challengers are outraising established incumbents and upending conventional wisdom about money in major elections. 

For opponents of big money in politics, this feels like the rumblings of revolution. If Rep. Beto O’Rourke – the Democratic nominee running an unlikely campaign against GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas – can raise $38 million in three months without the help of a super PAC, then the possibilities are endless. Suddenly anyone with charisma and an internet connection can run a viable campaign.

That could have the effect of reorienting the party towards the kind of left-leaning candidates that seem to appeal most to small-dollar donors, advocates say. More importantly, average Americans can begin to wield real power in politics again, because once in office, candidates who relied on smaller contributions will be more accountable to those donors than to mega-corporations with shadowy agendas.

At least, that’s the theory. Some political analysts wonder whether, in the end, the flood of money will actually help Democrats as much as it seems. A lot of these small-dollar donations are going to candidates who, by standard political measures, are running improbable races at best. If Democrats wind up underperforming, the results of Nov. 6 could cause a reassessing of the value of fundraising as a measure of grassroots appeal – and even discourage would-be donors in the future.

And the latest set of campaign financial disclosures showed Republican national party committees and top GOP super PACs with more cash on hand than their Democratic counterparts going into the final leg of the cycle. The late-game advantage could help the GOP invest more strategically in candidates who are low on cash but still in competitive races.

“Online giving has probably revolutionized political campaigning. Democrats in particular have really capitalized [on the trend],” says Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), which tracks money in elections. “But donors often have a more optimistic view of change than the demographics of a region suggest,” she adds. “It ultimately is up to constituents.”

Banking political power

Back in August, when the fight to confirm then-nominee Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was just beginning to crest, the progressive Be A Hero Fund started a campaign on the crowdsourcing site Crowdpac. Organizers asked donors to make “pledges” against Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who was seen as one of the key swing votes. If she voted against Judge Kavanaugh, donors wouldn’t be charged. But if she voted for him, the money raised would go to her Democratic challenger in 2020 – whomever he or she may be.

The campaign collected $1.3 million in one month, enough to match the cash Senator Collins had on hand. Twice the site crashed because too many people were rushing to contribute: First when Collins announced in early October that she would be supporting Kavanaugh, and again when she voted to confirm him. This week, the campaign hit its $4 million goal in total donations both through Crowdpac and other sources, says Be A Hero spokesperson Liz Jaff. 

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine speaks with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh at her office on Capitol Hill on Aug. 21, 2018. After Senator Collins voted in favor of Judge Kavanaugh's confirmation, angry activists donated $4 million to support her as-yet-unknown Democratic opponent in 2020.

Critics would note that’s $4 million Democrats can’t tap for current down-to-the-wire races that could very well determine control of the Senate. “Those donations are more ideologically driven than rational, cool, strategic,” says Adam Hilton, a professor of comparative and historical politics at Mount Holyoke College. “That could have ripple effects through the party.”

To Ms. Jaff, that’s the point: funding an as-yet-unidentified candidate shows that voters are in charge. She calls it “rage donating” – a way of channeling anger at the system by putting money exactly where donors want it to go, not to an organization that’s going to do the choosing for them. The Be A Hero campaign has already reshaped the Maine 2020 Senate race, she says. And it could prove the power of “conditional fundraising” for issues like health care, the tax bill, and even immigration in legislatures nationwide. 

Jesse Thomas, head of strategy and marketing at Crowdpac, says donors are “banking their political power” in a way that’s never been done before.

Existing candidates have also benefited from this combination of voter outrage and user-friendly technology. Democrats have raised a total of $205 million in donations of $200 or less in 2018 – three times more than Republicans, according to The Washington Post. Crowdpac’s user base has quadrupled since 2016, Mr. Thomas says, and contributions through the site rose 77 percent between 2017 and 2018.

ActBlue, a nonprofit online fundraising service that caters to Democrats and progressives, has processed $1.5 billion in donations since 2016. That’s double the total amount the company has raised since it was founded in 2004, says executive director Erin Hill. “And they’re coming in amounts of $30, $40 dollars. I don’t think we’ve seen this kind of engagement across the board.”

Advocates of campaign finance reform have been thrilled. They see this election as a chance to prove that candidates can run and win without the influence of “dark money” – funds donated to groups that can spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns without disclosing where the money came from. That could, in turn, shift the balance of power in Congress from big corporate donors to actual voters, they say.

“There’s a huge difference between tens of thousands of people giving $15 and 1,500 people giving $10,000,” says Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United, a political action committee working to reverse the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that opened the door for unlimited political spending by corporations and unions. “That changes who you’re accountable to as a member of Congress. It changes which voters you are fighting for.”

Over the past decade – and especially since the Citizens United ruling – the Democratic Party has flagged in donations for candidates who aren’t running for president. Strategists say one-click contributions could grease the gears for potential donors who before might have hesitated to use cash to engage in politics.

“If you make it easy for a person to get involved, they will,” says Taryn Rosenkranz, founder and chief executive of New Blue Interactive, a Democratic digital strategies firm. “At any moment, when I feel emotionally invested – boom, I can do something about it. I can purchase that hat or yard sign,” or send $20 to a candidate halfway across the country.

Uncoordinated donations

Of course, if most of a candidate’s donors are from outside his or her state or district, then the amount raised from small-dollar donations is not necessarily a reliable indicator of support. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, widely considered one of the most endangered Democrats in the Senate, has raised more than $30 million – with $4 million coming from outside spending groups – against Republican challenger Josh Hawley. But that hasn’t kept her race from being perilously close, with polls showing a slight advantage going to Mr. Hawley.

Congressman O’Rourke, despite receiving 60 percent of his funding from in-state donors, has trailed Senator Cruz in most major polls. (Real Clear Politics had Cruz ahead by an average of 7 points in the first two weeks of October.)

Progressive candidates this cycle have tended to generate more excitement, and dollars, than moderate ones. Which means the candidates who need money the most – many of whom are running expensive races in swing districts or states that went to President Trump in 2016 – may not be getting the support they need. “If you were a donor inclined to give to Bernie Sanders, you’re probably not as inclined to give to Claire McCaskill,” says CRP’s Ms. Bryner. “You just don’t see the connection.”

“Uncoordinated donations are a pretty unstrategic way of going about trying to retake the House or the Senate,” Professor Hilton adds. “If all that enthusiasm whipped up is ultimately going to not result in the outcome that people want – like shifting the balance of power in Congress – you might end up deflating people.”

For some activists, though, the “wait-and-see” attitude misses the point. Whatever happens on Nov. 6, they say, the important thing is that people – mostly Democrats in this cycle – were willing and able to engage in the political process. Most donors know that one small contribution isn’t going to make or break a high-stakes contest like the Texas Senate race. But it might make a candidate more competitive, and it empowers average folks to see their money go somewhere they care about. 

Sometimes, that’s enough.

“If you were to ask the Supreme Court, they’re just speaking very loudly,” Bryner adds, half joking. “That is what a lot of donors are doing. They’re expressing themselves.”

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