The money seems almost bottomless.
Fueled by resistance to President Donald Trump, Democrats have raised record-shattering sums for their political campaigns up and down the ballot. Opposition to Trump has mobilized new small-dollar and big-money donors, and more women have invested in politics than ever before.
But once Trump leaves office, perhaps as soon as January if he loses his bid for reelection, Democrats will have to sustain their fundraising momentum without the benefit of the provocateur in chief residing in the free world’s most powerful post. Although Democrats would lose the daily outrage factor that has helped fill their party’s coffers during the Trump presidency, they will retain many advantages, including the ease of donating online through ActBlue and the long list of repeat donors to hit up.
Party insiders will watch to see whether those donors, many of whom give in small amounts such as $10 or $25, have adopted a new habit that will outlast Trump — or if they will return to their campaign finance hibernation.
A top indicator of whether people will donate political money is, after all, whether they have done so in the past. And Democrats expect that even if Trump loses this election, neither he nor his bombastic brand of Republican politics will exit the national stage. So the fight may morph into a battle against Trumpism, if not against Trump himself.
“There are other Donald Trump-like Republicans, and they’re plentiful,” said Democrat Cheri Bustos, who represents a western Illinois district and chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Democrats also successfully use other Republicans, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, as boogeymen to motivate contributors.
Democrats expect Trump to continue to rile up their donors, even if he’s voted out of the White House.
“If Trump loses, it’s not as though he’s going to ride quietly into the sunset,” said Anne MacMillan, a lobbyist at Invariant and Democratic donor. “I think he’s going to be present, motivating Democrats to continue their engagement — the gift that will keep on giving for many years.”
Meredith McGehee, executive director of the campaign finance overhaul group Issue One, says the surge in small-dollar donations, from either side of the aisle, is a healthy sign for political engagement.
“I don’t think we’ve ever quite seen a motivating factor like Donald Trump,” she said. He is viewed, especially on the left, as “an existential threat to the republic.”
If that threat were to disappear, though, it’s unclear whether donors would invest at the levels they’re doing this election cycle. Democrats see promising signs. The price tag for each election cycle has gone up, hitting an all-time max of $14 billion in 2020, the Center for Responsive Politics estimates. And the ability to tap into small donors has increasingly paid off, especially for Democrats; Republicans are struggling to catch up.
“You cannot close these floodgates,” Democratic fundraiser Cooper Teboe said. “You cannot put this cat back in the bag.”
Taking on corporate interests
Lobbyist Tonya Saunders, a longtime Democratic Party supporter, said the lowered barrier to entry for small donors allows people to feel invested in politics in a way previously thought to be the exclusive realm of K Street operators and corporate interests. She said the grassroots fundraising strategy has been more than a decade in the making, dating back to President Barack Obama’s work.
“Small donors or just average voters, wherever they sit — in rural West Virginia or Indiana, or major cities — they feel this has allowed them to participate in the process in a way they haven’t before,” she said.
Jake Indich, a Democratic small-dollar donor who lives in Los Angeles and works in the medical insurance industry, says he’d given very little in the way of political contributions before the Trump era. This cycle, he’s made two dozen contributions, mostly worth $25, through ActBlue, according to federal election records. He’s donated repeatedly to the campaign of Joe Biden, who is running against Trump, as well as to Democratic congressional candidates.
“The frequency of my donating has increased dramatically during the Trump administration,” Indich said. He expects to continue to donate if Biden wins the White House, but it may not hold the same urgency.
“I’ll probably give less,” he said. “The immediacy of the election of our lifetimes is obviously something of a motivating factor. I’m sure when 2022 rolls around, I’ll start giving to Senate and House candidates.”
He said the ease of giving through ActBlue made it a regular investment, like online shopping. “During the pandemic, people have started to spend more on Amazon,” he said. “Shopping on Amazon could not be easier, and ActBlue is almost like my Amazon.”
Republicans are working to better compete with ActBlue and have pushed a similar platform called WinRed, though even GOP insiders acknowledge their party is years behind Democrats when it comes to online donating.
“The fundraising numbers that we’re seeing from Democrats are the new reality,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to McConnell and president of the firm Cavalry LLC. Although Democrats’ anxiety about Trump “increases” the party’s giving, Holmes said, it’s not a short-term trend tied to the president.
“The Republican donor class has been incredibly engaged,” he noted. The party’s super PACs have broken their own records, but those outside groups pay more for TV advertising than candidates do.
“Democrats have a culture within their activist class, not the donor class, that every time they are upset, they’ll give $5 to five different candidates,” Holmes said. “Every time a Republican is upset, they’ll write a five-paragraph essay on Facebook.”
Every GOP senator in a competitive race this cycle brought in less money than their challengers in the third quarter, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of fundraising reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. The average Democratic challenger raked in $23.1 million from July through September — more than twice the $10.4 million average for their incumbent Republican opponents. Democrat Jaime Harrison, who is challenging Graham in South Carolina, shattered quarterly fundraising records by hauling in almost $58 million during that period.
Female donors, many repelled by Trump, represent 44 percent of all 2020 contributors, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. That is a jump from the pre-Trump era when women lagged further behind men, representing 33 percent of donors in the 2012 cycle.
The onslaught of Democratic dollars has forced Republicans to spend in races they previously hadn’t budgeted for or to spend much more than they had planned, including in Senate and House races in Alaska, South Carolina, Kansas and even Arkansas. The deficit between Republican and Democratic candidates has forced GOP-aligned super PACs to pony up far more than their projections at the start of the cycle.
Michael Malbin, director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a division of the National Institute on Money in Politics, says that even without Trump in the White House, control of Congress may still be at stake in future elections, considering both chambers have flipped back and forth in the past two decades.
“Donors, especially small-dollar donors, are more likely to be activated by fear and dislike than by admiration for a candidate,” Malbin said. In a post-Trump Washington, he asked, “will politics be less negative?” Perhaps. “But I don’t expect politics to suddenly turn positive, deliberative and compromising,” he said.
If Democrats win control of the White House and the Senate and hold the House, the party may see a dip in donor enthusiasm. Or Democratic donors could turn their fundraising energy on each other, funding primary contests against incumbents who aren’t viewed as sufficiently progressive.
And Republicans may seize on their own anger and opposition to gin up donations.
“At the end of the day, the thing that wins elections is pure emotion, mostly anger,” said Sam Geduldig, a Republican lobbyist and donor. “Right now, that’s driving their numbers. They’re obviously upset at Trump, and are donating record sums. The irony behind raising money in politics is that sometimes it’s better to be in the minority or out in the wilderness.”
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.