Struggling RNC tapping fewer deep pockets

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011

Hundreds of major donors have abandoned the Republican National Committee, leaving it $20 million in debt and threatening its future as a central player in the 2012 presidential election.

The RNC raised just $7 million from major donors for the midterm elections, one sixth as much as it brought in for the previous midterms, in 2006. By contrast, the Democratic National Committee raised $38 million from large donors for last fall's midterms, three times as much as for the 2006 elections, according to a Washington Post analysis of donor records.

Chairman election

On Friday, when RNC members gather at National Harbor to select a chairman, they will meet under the shadow of the committee's finances, which are in worse shape than at any time since the Federal Election Commission began keeping records 35 years ago.

"You can't even dream of winning in 2012 with that kind of operation," said John Dowd, a Washington lawyer and longtime RNC donor who decided against contributing in the past two years because of the "mess" at the party. "As long as it's in that kind of shape, I can't even think of giving."

The run-up to Friday's vote, with Chairman Michael S. Steele in a tough race for reelection against four other candidates, has been laced with acrimony largely focused on the party's struggles to raise and manage money.

The financial troubles could be a significant challenge going forward, given a broad field of potential Republican presidential candidates and President Obama's fundraising success in the past. In his 2008 campaign, Obama raised $750 million, making him one of the strongest political fundraisers ever.

Disappearing donors

The Republican Party's donor rolls show that 609 major contributors from the past two elections chose not to write a check for the 2010 midterms, according to an analysis of data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

At least some of those donors decided to give instead to newly formed conservative interest groups, which increased their share of Republican fundraising in the midterms.

Among those donors is Donald Carter, Texas businessman and founder of the Dallas Mavericks NBA franchise, who gave at least $25,000 to the RNC each year from 2004 to 2008. In October, Carter gave $10,000 to American Crossroads, a group founded with support from George W. Bush administration political adviser Karl Rove.

Carter did not return calls seeking comment.

"Major donors are sophisticated," said Mike Duncan, who chaired the RNC during the 2008 elections. "They understand they have a choice."

He predicted continuing challenges for the party, given its outstanding loans.

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