The tactic, roundly criticized by campaign finance experts as deceptive, was also employed by the Trump campaign from September until the 2020 election to shore up its dwindling coffers.
Many Trump supporters who intended to donate only once were unwittingly enrolled to give weekly because they didn’t read the fine print requiring them to uncheck a box, a New York Times investigation found, resulting in credit card complaints, overdrafts and the Trump campaign refunding tens of millions of dollars to its supporters.
The Trump team continued the recurring payments for more than a month after the November election.
The NRCC’s use of recurring payments has drawn comparisons with the Trump campaign’s fundraising scheme.
NRCC spokesman Michael McAdams defended the practice, saying in an email that it “employs the same standards that are accepted and utilized by Democrats and Republicans across the digital fundraising ecosystem.”
The fundraising platform for Republicans, called WinRed, and for Democrats, called ActBlue, have both used pre-checked boxes to set up recurring donations. But the New York Times found the amount of refunds WinRed made to donors in 2020 far exceeded what ActBlue returned to supporters.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) shared screenshots of its prompts after an initial donation is made that says “Make it monthly!” with “Yes, count me in” pre-checked next to an option that says, “No, donate once.” If the person chooses the recurring option, a pop-up appears confirming the monthly payment with a link that says, “Make this a one-time contribution instead?”
“Unlike the NRCC, we use clear language and confirm with our grass-roots supporters that they would like to set up a recurring monthly donation,” said Helen Kalla, a DCCC spokeswoman.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist on good-government issues at Public Citizen, said requests for recurring donations are common but should always offer clear instructions and don’t threaten repercussions if a donor opts out.
The Republicans’ tactic, he said, is “extortion,” “akin to blackmail” and “highly unethical,” but it is not illegal. Political donors who feel duped or coerced don’t have a lot of legal recourse under campaign finance or consumer protection laws.
Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, a government accountability organization, said it comes down to “basic human decency.”
“While it should be easy for supporters of an organization to make recurring donations, people shouldn’t be tricked or bullied into making donations,” Ryan said. “NRCC and Trump solicitations seem to have crossed this line.”