The Influence Industry

Democrats retain advantage among big donors even as total fundraising edge slips

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2010

Democrats are having a number of serious problems on the fundraising front, from unhappiness among Wall Street financiers to a narrowing gap with Republicans since the 2008 elections.

But Democrats can still cling to one thing: They remain the kings of collecting money from big donors.

A little-noticed Federal Election Commission report released this month -- and spotted by Washington Post congressional guru Paul Kane -- shows that the three main Democratic committees raised more than twice as much from large donors as their Republican counterparts last year.

The numbers add context to a debate in fundraising circles over whether wealthy donors might be giving less to the Democratic Party because of disputes over White House policies. A number of organizations, including The Post, have chronicled how Wall Street financiers and other patrons who backed Barack Obama in 2008 are either abandoning Democrats or, at the very least, giving less money than in the past.

But the FEC data suggest plenty of wealthy donors continued to support Democrats with their checkbooks, at least through December.

The Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee together took in more than $37.3 million from donors who gave $10,000 or more during the year, the FEC data show. On the GOP side, donors at the same level gave less than $15.6 million to the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee combined, the data show.

The overall money race is much closer, with Democratic committees raising $141 million and the GOP close behind at $137.6 million. The Democratic committees, in other words, got more than twice as much of their individual contributions from big donors as Republicans did.

The contrast was particularly sharp between the DNC, which received 60 percent of its money from donations of less than $200, and the RNC, which took in nearly 80 percent of its receipts from the smallest donors. The RNC still edged out the DNC by $4 million in total money raised from individuals.

Overall, the data illustrate how Democrats are in a state of flux on fundraising. Gridlock in Congress and softening public support for Obama have clearly hurt the party's bank accounts, yet the Democrats still benefit mightily from holding the levers of power in Washington.

Consider a comparison with 2005, another post-presidential off-election year, but with Republicans controlling the White House and Congress. The DNC raised just $4.4 million from $10,000-and-over donors that year, an amount the committee quadrupled last year. The pattern is reversed at the RNC, which brought in $20.5 million in large donations in 2005 but less than $3 million in the same category last year.

The Democratic power advantage also shows up in "excess cash" that lawmakers can transfer from their campaign accounts to the party committees. House Democrats, for example, donated nearly $16 million to the DCCC, compared with less than $5 million from House Republicans to the NRCC, the FEC data show.

But the data also reveal Democratic weak points. The DSCC, which took in $15 million from big donors when Democrats were out of power in 2005, raised less than $10 million from the same group last year.

The DNC did not respond to a request for comment on the data. But RNC spokesman Doug Heye said Republicans have made remarkable progress in closing the fundraising gap with Democrats despite being out of power. He noted Obama's ability to hold million-dollar fundraisers with congressional leaders.

"They'll be continuing to get as much water from that stone as they can, but that water is drying up as Obama's poll numbers have fallen," Heye said. "When we had the White House and both chambers, we had a distinct advantage. Now they have that advantage, yet we're still basically at parity with them."

To campaign finance reformers, the lesson to be drawn from the data is simple: There's too much big money in politics.

"Both big donors and ordinary voters are tired of the constant money chase," said David Donnelly, national campaigns director for the Public Campaign Action Fund, which favors public financing for election campaigns.

"Voters see the fundraising as an impediment to good policy," Donnelly added, and "many of the big donors would prefer members of Congress work on the issues confronting the country."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company