The GOP efforts are starting to show up in the numbers: In the weeks leading up to Election Day, Democrat Jon Ossoff outraised Perdue online about 5-to-1, while Democrat Raphael Warnock raised more than 20 times more online than Loeffler, according to a POLITICO analysis of Federal Election Commission filings from WinRed and ActBlue, the two parties’ widely used online fundraising platforms.
But in the three weeks following Election Day, Loeffler and Perdue each averaged over a million dollars raised online every day, a big jump. Ossoff and Warnock’s daily hauls also leapt up, but the Republicans narrowed the Democrats’ enormous online fundraising advantage to an edge of about 2-to-1.
Matching Democrats’ online donor power has been a long-term problem for Republicans, whose candidates have been overwhelmed by record-shattering Democratic money in two straight national elections. It’s the result of Democrats’ embrace of online fundraising years ago, while Republicans have relied more heavily on max-out check writers to their candidates and super PACs powered by megadonors’ millions to make up the gap.
Now, some top Republicans are trying to both build up a culture of online giving among their voters and a culture of spending money on digital programs — prospecting for donors via early, expensive online advertising campaigns, for example — among their candidates, from the Senate all the way down to state legislative hopefuls.
The GOP has to “at least dent some of their momentum,” as opposed to overtaking Democrats outright in the online fundraising race, said Eric Wilson, a GOP strategist who led Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential digital operation.
“There were just so many cycles of this green wave for Democrats, but in 2020, candidates were able to cut into that edge just a little bit,” Wilson added.
Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Lindsey Graham built strong digital programs in 2020, but the candidate-to-candidate funding disparity in Georgia and the 2020 national totals demonstrate how much ground Republicans still have to make up. ActBlue, which was founded in 2004, processed north of $4.8 billion of small-dollar donations from contributors giving to over 22,000 campaigns and progressive causes this election cycle. WinRed, which was founded in mid-2019, processed more than $1.9 billion over the same period.
Democrats note that what Republicans are doing right now in Georgia may be demonstrating the ceiling of their capabilities, since the Senate runoffs are attracting unique attention as the only federal races in the country right now, as the Senate majority hangs in the balance.
“I don’t think Democrats can discount what Republicans are doing right now,” said one Democratic digital strategist, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. “But they don’t need the money from the grassroots as much because they have so many large-dollar donors to fund campaigns and outside groups. They don’t need it as much as we do, so they’re not going to fight for it as hard as us, and that includes Georgia.”
Still, more than a half-dozen senior Republicans and digital strategists described a significant culture shift among top GOP candidates and staff, who are eager to gear up for the 2022 midterms and a potentially contested 2024 GOP presidential primary.
“A majority of those stakeholders, from Republican candidates to chiefs of staff to the committees, rather than a minority just two years ago, now know that we face a potentially permanent fundraising disadvantage if we don’t figure this out,” said Gerrit Lansing, the Republican digital strategist who founded WinRed. “People are afraid of that gap. But with a half-dozen examples from this year, they’ve realized we really can raise tens of millions of dollars online.”
“Democrats don’t have some secret sauce,” Lansing added.
Strategists in both parties said they’d be keeping a close eye out for concrete evidence of this shift in 2021, watching the number of unique donors Republicans are able to add to their pool of supporters next year without President Donald Trump — the party’s most powerful online fundraiser by far — in the White House.
“We’ve taken a big problem we had in the first quarter of 2020 and turned it into a much smaller problem in the fourth quarter,” said one digital GOP strategist. “We don’t have to beat them at it because that’s a huge disparity to overcome, but the fact that we’ve gotten closer is a good sign.”
There is also evidence that Republicans are more firmly embedding small-dollar donors into their party infrastructure. Online fundraising programs, once nonexistent at Republican committees, are now trickling down to even the state legislative level.
The Republican State Leadership Committee — the national group responsible for helping to elect GOP state legislative candidates — started with “effectively nothing” for their digital fundraising program seven months ago but hauled in nearly $4.5 million just online this year, a nearly 19,000 percent increase from 2019 to 2020, said David Abrams, the group’s former deputy executive director. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the RSLC’s Democratic counterparts, also saw its own surge in online fundraising, charting a nearly 500 percent increase in grassroots money raised in 2020 over 2016.
Throughout the last year, Abrams said he and the RSLC worked on “getting the right buy-in” from fellow Republicans on digital fundraising, evangelizing its utility at every presentation, training, or phone update with Republican candidates and campaign staffers.
That cultural education is necessary, Abrams said, because while spending money early to build a strong digital program pays off in the long run, it “runs counter to what political operatives are taught about how to run campaigns — keeping as much money on hand for as long as possible. But in digital, you have to invest early.”
Democrats also saw pick-up among their state legislative candidates in grassroots fundraising. Contributions to state legislative candidates on ActBlue tripled in 2020 compared to the same period in 2018. But the RSLC won handily in November, retaining control of 59 state legislative chambers and flipping three more, while Democrats failed to flip a single chamber.
Building a small-dollar program also has implications for the 2024 presidential primary, where Republicans are gearing up for ways to stand out in what could be a crowded field. Small-dollar donors played a similar role in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, serving as an informal “straw poll” for viability.
“Anyone who’s looking to run for president in 2024, the first person they’re going to hire is someone who knows how to do digital fundraising,” said Jon Adams, a senior Republican strategist. “In the past, the main focus was on a finance director or someone who can raise major-dollar funds, which is still an important role. But successful campaigns have grassroots supporters.”
And going forward, Republicans will gain an important psychological benefit in online fundraising: the rage of a party out of the White House. Democrats fueled their campaigns with anti-Trump sentiment to great effect throughout the last four years, smashing fundraising records. Digital strategists in both parties acknowledge that it is easier to raise cash from small-dollar donors if you’re the party out of power in the White House.
“Now, I do think the tactic of ‘fund-raging’ is going to swing over to the Republican benefit over the next four years,” Wilson said.
What Trump does with the biggest donor list in Republican politics will also help determine how quickly the GOP can continue to grow.
“If he goes off and does his own thing, raising money for just himself, then I think that severely hurts the GOP because he’ll be siphoning resources from them,” said another Democratic digital strategist. “But if he decides to cooperate, then I’m really concerned [for Democrats] in 2022.”