GOP faces fundraising reckoning as Democrats rake in cash
Republicans are facing a post-election reckoning about how they cultivate small-dollar donors.
Regardless of who wins on Nov. 3, GOP lawmakers and officials say there needs to be a party-wide discussion about how to better fundraise as the coronavirus pandemic magnifies the importance of digital efforts at a time when in-person events are dramatically scaled back.
Republicans, playing defense as they try to hold on to the Senate majority and the White House, have watched Democrats rake in a mountain of cash that has helped move deep-red states into toss-up territory and set off alarms throughout the GOP.
“I’m sure we’ll be going to school on how the Democrats are so successful, because we just can’t afford to be outspent by these huge margins and expect to be successful,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is up for reelection this year.
Asked if the party needed a post-election examination of how to better cultivate small-dollar donors, Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, replied: “Oh my gosh, yes, absolutely, yeah.”
“They’ve created a mechanism that’s very effective, and we’re trying to catch up,” Thune said, noting Republicans “were just getting crushed.”
Asked if he thought the party needed to do better, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who is up for reelection in 2022, called it an “obvious yes.”
“I think Democrats with ActBlue are way ahead. … Hats off to them, they did a really good job. We’re just behind,” Johnson said, referring to the main fundraising platform for donations to Democratic candidates and causes.
The looming GOP introspection on fundraising comes as the party’s Senate candidates in the most competitive races have been outspent and outraised by their Democratic counterparts, allowing them to put Republican senators, whose reelections were once considered sure bets, on the defense.
“It pays dividends down the road. I think that you will absolutely see people raising the spending disparities as something that affected the outcome in certain races and highlighting it as something that needs to improve on our side for the next cycle,” said one GOP official.
That cash advantage includes states that were expected to be competitive at the start of the cycle, including Arizona and Maine. But Democrats have been able to galvanize a national network of grass-roots donors through ActBlue to pour money into once-safe red seats.
Amy McGrath, the Democratic Senate nominee in Kentucky, has brought in roughly $88 million; Barbara Bollier, who is running for an open Senate seat in Kansas, has raised more than $24.4 million; and Jaime Harrison, who is challenging Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) in South Carolina, has raised nearly $107.6 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Graham argued that “me breathing” was enough to anger Democrats and fuel donations toward Harrison, but he acknowledged that Republicans have to be competitive in the digital space.
“Traditional fundraising is still there, but the social media … my opponent, to his credit, it’s just been incredible what ActBlue has been able to do,” Graham said. “If you don’t have a social media fundraising strategy, you’re in trouble.”
Democrats have shown they can seize on major and unexpected political moments, like the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace her, as force multipliers for the party’s fundraising apparatus.
“Democratic Senate campaigns made strategic early investments in digital infrastructure from the day they launched, and those smart decisions have paid off and helped expand the map. But the problem for Republican incumbents isn’t just that they’re behind on the tools to use, they’re also facing a massive grass-roots enthusiasm gap this cycle,” said Stewart Boss, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Jessica Taylor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report noted in a final pre-election analysis that “if Democrats take back the Senate … the fundraising advantage challengers built early on, largely enabled by grass-roots small-dollar donors, will also play a large part in that victory.”
That set off behind-the-scenes alarm bells among Republicans.
GOP officials have been privately warning Senate staff and campaigns for months that if they didn’t step up their own online fundraising game they were going to face a “green tsunami” of Democratic cash in the closing months.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned GOP lobbyists in a recent phone call that Democrats were “on fire” with their fundraising, sources told CNN, urging donors to help close the funding gap.
Republicans started WinRed in mid-2019 as an effort to counteract ActBlue, which launched 15 years earlier.
ActBlue brought in $1.5 billion in the latest fundraising quarter, compared to about $620 million for WinRed. GOP officials note ActBlue is also open to nonprofit and social welfare organizations, whereas WinRed is focused on candidates and party committees.
“At the moment it’s not apples-to-apples. … On a federal-to-federal comparison we are actually quite close, and I think October might surprise some people. I think it sort of depends on November, how much money gets raised in 2022,” said Gerrit Lansing, WinRed’s president.
“I think, regardless, we’re going to surprise a lot of people next cycle with what we’re able to put up against ActBlue on an apples-to-apples comparison,” he added.
Johnson predicted that Republicans would find their footing with time.
“Any successful business follows what their successful competitors do, so we’re just behind the curb,” Johnson said about 2022. “I know we’ll try and develop that further.”
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) added that while the party needed to improve because it’s been “slow to engage,” he anticipated “our donors base would engage in that just as much as the small donors have into the ActBlue.”
Even as Democrats have an advantage on small-dollar donors, Republican super PACs have poured in money in the final stretch.
The Senate Leadership Fund, which is run by McConnell allies, raised nearly $50 million in the first two weeks of October and spent more than $94 million in the same time period, with additional spending in states like Alaska, Kansas, North Carolina and South Carolina since then, according to Federal Election Commission filings, as they try to shore up GOP incumbents.
Senate Republicans argued that the eventual shift needs to go beyond only creating an account on WinRed, which they credited with success in its short lifespan, but to the mindset of individual campaigns to prioritize digital outreach to small-dollar donors.
“Yes, the WinRed thing has just been active for a short period of time, but it’s clear that Democrats … have figured this out better than we have. And I think rather than dinners and cocktail receptions and things like that they’re just relying on contributions on the internet. And it’s working for them because they’re basically outspending all the rest of us,” Cornyn said.
Thune added there needed to be a “larger conversation” about how to galvanize small-dollar donors.
“Just building a real online presence. … It’s like the old-school days when you prospected through the mail. You expected to lose money early on but you would add names and then over time, as it builds up, then it becomes really financially sustainable,” Thune said.
Part of the challenge for Republicans will be to condition their supporters to turn frustration over news-of-the-day stories or significant political developments into a built-in reaction to donate. Democrats, for example, were able to raise $100 million in roughly 36 hours after Ginsburg’s death in part, Republicans argue, because they have more than 15 years of building a culture that emphasizes donating.
Lansing said that while Republicans had “come a really long way,” getting GOP voters conditioned was still “one of the big macro problems.”
“I think that’s one of the big macro problems. Look, ActBlue has been around for 15 years,” he said. “They’ve had 15 years to sort of train the audience, so to speak, and we’ve had like 15-plus months.”
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