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Small donors come up big for GOP candidates

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) got more than half of his campaign funds from small donors on his way to winning an election in January.
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) got more than half of his campaign funds from small donors on his way to winning an election in January. (Harry Hamburg/associated Press)

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

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

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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.

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