Big donors return to RNC

February 8, 2012

Big donors are back at the Republican National Committee.

The party raised nearly three times as much from rich donors in 2011 than during the entire midterm election cycle. The money from wealthy supporters has helped the RNC recover from its dire financial position of last year, when the party’s bank accounts were in their worst shape in more than three decades.

The committee’s relative financial health will be a much-needed boost to the Republican nominee who will take on President Obama in November.

Obama raised more money for his campaign and the Democratic National Committee than all of the Republican candidates combined last year. Despite Obama’s help, however, in five out of 12 months last year, the RNC outraised the Democratic Party committee.

Still, the RNC has less money available now than it did ahead of the 2004 and 2008 elections — the lingering effect of the $20 million in debt it carried this time last year.

Big donors — those giving more than $10,000 in a single check — contributed $18.9 million to the RNC last year, according to a Washington Post analysis of fundraising reports. That compares with $7 million that the party raised from big donors in all of 2009 and 2010.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has made an effort to solicit the help of longtime party hands to raise money, including Ron Weiser, a former Michigan party chairman and ambassador to Slovakia who is leading the GOP’s finance committee, and Mel Sembler, a real estate developer and banker who served as an ambassador to Italy and Australia.

The analysis of the RNC’s fundraising also contains bad news: The party is getting less money from small donors, typically a sign of low enthusiasm at the grass roots. The Post analysis shows that receipts last year from donors giving checks of less than $200 are down about 25 percent from the previous year.

The leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, Mitt Romney, has also struggled to raise money from smaller donors, a signal of his own problems appealing to GOP base. Unless the pattern changes, the GOP could be open to attacks from Democrats that the party is funded overwhelming by the rich in a year already fraught with populism.

RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said that the party’s small donors are more committed than those that were lured with calendars and other freebies in past years. Internal figures show that more donors are giving multiple times.

The RNC’s weakness in small donors is in contrast to Obama’s campaign and the two Democratic fundraising committees on Capitol Hill. Also, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee outraised its Republican counterpart for House races despite the Democrats’ minority status — largely because of their strength with small donors.

Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics and a former Federal Election Commission official, said that RNC members are “living within their means.”

Although it brought in less money last year, the committee paid off debts and kept spending to a minimum.

The committee has $7 million available after accounting for debts. That’s significantly less than the $17.3 million that it had on the eve of the 2008 election year and the $33.1 million that it had at the start of 2004.

The money in the bank may matter less than a steady revenue stream, Biersack said.

“If you’re raising significant amounts each month, you’re not so dependent on that cash balance,” he said. “You’re dependent on the flow of money through the committee and hopefully it grows.”

During the midterm election cycle, the party hemorrhaged big donors and spent lavishly, at times stoking controversy that further hurt fundraising.

This election year could be another time of transition for the national parties, which were reshaped in 2002 by campaign finance regulations that banned corporate contributions and capped the size of donations from individuals.

Typically, the parties raise hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on ads benefiting their presidential nominee. This year, the rapid rise in spending by super PACs, which can accept donations of any size from any source, means that role may be moving outside the official party.

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this column. For more Influence Industry columns, go to postpolitics.com.

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