WASHINGTON — Republicans are beginning to catch up with Democrats in online fundraising, creating, for the first time in modern history, a political landscape where both parties are largely funded by small donations, for better — or some say worse.
Democrats have dominated online fundraising since the early days of the Internet and touted the billions they raise in small donations as evidence that they are the party of the people, less reliant on wealthy donors and business interests than the GOP.
Republicans have spent years playing catch up, mostly unsuccessfully. But now, just in time for the 2022 midterms, they are starting to pull even, thanks in large part to former President Donald Trump and his army of online devotees.
“This is the harvest of the seeds of digital infrastructure Republicans have been planting for years,” said Matt Gorman, a GOP strategist who worked for the party’s congressional campaign arm during the last midterm election. “That’s why you’re seeing things like freshman members of the House raising over $1 million dollars (in a single quarter). In 2018, we were begging folks to raise a fifth of that.”
Even out of office, Trump himself continues to raise massive sums of money, largely online, announcing Saturday that his political groups had collected nearly $82 million in the first half of the year, giving him a warchest of more than $102 million.
In the last quarter, the GOP’s three main party committees raised from small donations amounts nearly identical to their Democratic counterparts.
The Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee together pulled in $77.65 million in donations that were smaller than $200 apiece in the quarter ending June 30, compared with Democrats’ $77.7 million for their corresponding groups.
Each sum accounted for an identical share, 57 percent, of the committees’ take from individual donors, according to an NBC News analysis of campaign finance reports.
Leveling the playing field
The fundraising totals are thanks in part to WinRed, which was created by Republicans in 2019 and is their version of Democrats’ ActBlue.
Like an Amazon for causes and candidates, these platforms streamline the giving process by saving donors’ credit card information to allow for one-click contributions, providing a central hub for the entire party and allied groups.
ActBlue has processed nearly $8.9 billion in donations since its founding in 2004. Republicans had fought for years amongst themselves over how to create an alternative and who would run it. It finally happened two years ago, when then-President Trump and his allies pressed party bossesto coalesce behind one platform ahead of his re-election campaign.
Building on the foundation of Trump’s own unusual-for-Republicans success in online fundraising, WinRed has now helped raise $2.3 billion for GOP candidates since its launch, with an average contribution of about $50.
“Republicans would always lose small-dollar donations. Now we win, or do very well, because we are the Party of Working Americans, and we beat the Democrats at their own game,” Trump said in April. “We learned from liberal ActBlue — and now we’re better than they are!”
Or as Gerrit Lansing, president of WinRed, told Fox News, “The good guys have leveled the playing field of online fundraising.”
That money could be critical in next year’s midterms — and beyond.
Small donors are especially valuable to the GOP as they try to fill the void left by the GOP’s traditional allies in corporate America after many businesses announced they would withhold contributions to Republicans who voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s election on Jan. 6.
Meanwhile, as the GOP has grown increasingly populist under Trump’s leadership, it has become more hostile to corporate power, so once loyal allies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have begun to hedge their bets by supporting Democrats and Republicans.
Campaign finance laws give an advantage to raising lots of small donations instead of big checks from wealthy individuals, since donations are maxed out at $2,900. And although wealthy donors can write big checks outside groups like super PACs, those groups have to pay steep prices for television advertising, typically the biggest expense for any campaign, diluting the power of each dollar.
Democrats still have the edge, having spent nearly two decades cultivating a culture of online giving. ActBlue took in $289 million last quarter compared with WinRed’s $131 million.
“Small-dollar donors are deepening their investment and propelling grass-roots movements forward like we have never seen before,” said Erin Hill, the executive director of ActBlue.
‘Fires of Polarization’
For the first time, both parties are now increasingly funded by, and beholden to, their online base.
While small dollars tend to be romanticized — Democrats’ voting rights bill includes provision to encourage such giving by matching $6 in public funds for every $1 in small donations — some see a big downside to empowering small donors, who tend to be the most ideological and online.
“The same dynamics that fuel virality on social media in general also apply to small-donor fundraising,” said Rick Pildes, a constitutional law professor and leading scholar of democracy at New York University.
“The more extreme appeals, the more extreme candidates, the candidates who have the highest profiles because they’re dominant presences on social media or on cable news, tend to attract and rely most heavily on small donors,” he said. “There’s a real risk that the rise in small-donor fundraising will throw further fuel on the fires of polarization that are burning so strongly.”
Research has shown that people who give online are more ideological than the general public and that more ideologically extreme lawmakers raise a larger portion of their campaign coffers from individual donors.
In the first quarter of this year, for instance, the member of Congress who raised the most money from small donors was Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., according to the transparency group Open Secrets, thanks to a flood of donations around the time she was kicked off her congressional committees for inflammatory and conspiratorial rhetoric, including about fictional Jewish space lasers.
The second-best performing House candidate among small donors was lightning rod Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Also on the top-ten list were Republicans Reps. Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, and Dan Crenshaw, some of Trump’s most flamboyant allies on Capitol Hill who excel at courting controversy.
“This is the rise of politics as performance instead of governance or legislation,” said Pildes. “Candidates know that if they can successfully stoke this culture of outrage that is likely to open the spigot of small donations.”