Small donors come up big for GOP candidates

By T.W. Farnam
Friday, May 28, 2010; A04

For the first time in a decade, Republican candidates for Congress are raising more than Democrats from small donors.

GOP candidates for the House and Senate this year have raised $70 million from small donors, compared with $44 million brought in by Democratic candidates, according to a Washington Post analysis of campaign finance data.

The trend is another sign that Republicans have turned their political momentum into money. Reports covering the first quarter had shown that GOP candidates were closing the gap or exceeding Democrats in key races and that corporations have started to shift behind the party.

The giving also fits a pattern in which small contributors loyal to the opposition are more motivated to give while their party is out of power. The last time Republicans received more small donations than Democrats was during the 1998 midterms, when Democrat Bill Clinton held the presidency.

In suburban Detroit, for example, 70 percent of the $450,000 raised by Republican House candidate Rocky Raczkowski has come in checks of less than $200.

"We have our own MoveOn dot Rocky," said Raczkowski, who is competing in the GOP primary and hopes to face freshman Democratic Rep. Gary Peters. "These aren't rich people, they are just committed -- and angry."

Raczkowski says auto-industry layoffs in his district have prompted people to do something about politics but denied them the ability to give much money. So they are supporting his campaign platform of small government by giving small bills.

"It's overwhelming," Raczkowski said, recalling a grandmother from Waterford, Mich., who wrote him a check for $5 after he answered her question at a gathering of local "tea party" supporters. "She said, 'I wish I could put more zeros after that, but I'm living on a fixed income.' "

In his campaign for the White House two years ago, Barack Obama changed the way money was raised by relying on legions of small donors. Nearly half of his record-setting war chest of $750 million was raised from donors giving less than $200 at a time.

This year, it is Republican candidates who have ridden a wave of support from motivated contributors, including thousands of tea party members, financial reports show. GOP candidates have raised 16 percent of their money from small donors, compared with 10 percent among Democratic candidates.

Unlike individual candidates, the Republican National Committee and other party committees have used mail solicitations to consistently bring in more money from small donors than their Democratic counterparts. The RNC's reliance on small donors has increased this cycle, with many large donors choosing not to give to party headquarters after controversies over its leadership.

In Florida, retired Army Lt. Col. Allen B. West has pulled in almost $1 million in small checks after attracting national attention for his conservative positions -- much of it after a video of one of his speeches was widely viewed on the Internet. That's almost twice as much money as West was able raise against incumbent Rep. Ron Klein in his first attempt at the seat in the 2008 election.

The surge in small donations also helped Republican Scott Brown in January in his victory in a Massachusetts senatorial special election, which spurred GOP momentum heading into the campaign year. Brown raised $8.3 million in small contributions, representing more than half of his total.

The increase in small-dollar support is not all good news for the party: Candidates getting small contributions do not always deliver the same message as party leaders.

Tea party favorite Rand Paul, for example, who won the GOP Kentucky Senate primary last week, is an ideological libertarian who has drawn 59 percent of his money from donors giving less than $200 at a time. He soundly defeated the establishment candidate backed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

And while large donors usually make smart-money bets on candidates expected to win, smaller donors tend to let their checkbooks follow their hearts. As a result, much of the small-donor money going to both parties is boosting candidates in uncompetitive races, another problem for the national party.

In Michigan, Raczkowski has a competitive primary opponent, Paul Welday, who was chief of staff for former congressman Joe Knollenberg. If Raczkowski wins the primary, he will run against Peters, who has a $1.7 million campaign war chest. Even in the current advantageous political climate for Republicans, Peters is favored to win.

One GOP candidate with grass-roots support, Californian Dana Walsh, is attempting something considered highly unlikely, unseating House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That hasn't stopped Walsh from pulling in $1.3 million in small checks, 90 percent of her total fundraising.

Overall, a minority of candidates has raised the majority of small contributions. Half of all money raised in checks under $200 has gone to 34 candidates, whereas about 900 candidates have raised more than $100,000 for their campaigns.

Small donors tend to favor candidates on the ideological margins and those who have drawn large amounts of media attention. Among the Republicans who have received a disproportionate share of small checks: Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), and Senate candidates who stirred up two races this cycle, Marco Rubio of Florida and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. On the left, small donors have favored outspoken liberal Democrats, including Rep. Alan Grayson (Fla.), Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.) and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio).

If the 2008 election is any guide, the swell of small donors could foreshadow higher turnout at the polls. Raczkowski says his campaign already has 600 active volunteers.

"It's not about the money -- it's about the people," he says. "They contribute what they can, whether it's five hours in the office or $5."

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