A sawbuck here, a Grant or a Benjamin there: The outsized impact of small donors in today’s politics 

September 21, 2020 12:01 am

Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet on NBC’s “West Wing” which ran on NBC from 1999 until 2006. (Photo David Rose/NBC/Newsmakers)

Guess who just emailed me. Jeb Bartlet!

You know, the greatest president of the United States in the last million-and-a-half years!

President Bartlet sent me a really nice note – addressed me by name and everything! – asking if I could spare a few bucks ($20, $50, $100 … every little bit helps) for U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who’s seeking re-election from Virginia’s 7th District.

Small donations from regular working folks are a thing. They’ve caught on big in the past dozen or so years, and it never hurts to have great former presidents (real or Hollywood versions) out there making the ask.

OK, I know Jeb Bartlet is the alter ego of actor Martin Sheen from a popular prime time television series in the ’90s and early 2000s. The West Wing is one of my favorites and is even more popular now as people binge whole seasons at a time on Netflix in an effort to re-imagine decency in the White House.

I get tons of campaign e-spam from both parties, some of it from real-life bigshots I actually know. Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate a quadrennium ago, emailed me (and doubtless thousands of others) seeking a few bucks to help re-elect Rep. Elaine Luria. Back in the day, I spent a lot of quality time with Kaine, covering him as governor, lieutenant governor and Richmond’s mayor.

I don’t have the heart to tell Tim or President Bartlet that I’m a little light right now – you know … pandemic, social upheaval and whatnot. But Jeb and Tim both have real resonance within the expanding universe of political micro-donors, a demographic that has provided substantial campaign finance muscle in recent years, particularly for progressives, and could ultimately help refocus representative government on real people, not plutocrats and special interests.

In U.S. House and Senate races over the past dozen years, Democratic candidates in general elections have collected a greater share of small-donor dollars than the GOP, according to federal elections data gathered by the independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics and is available on its website,

From 2008 through 2018, 12 percent to 17 percent of the totals that congressional general election candidates raised from all sources, including political action committees, self-funding and transfers from other committees, came from individual donations of $200 or less. Most years, Democrats got more than half, an analysis of the OpenSecrets data shows.

There are exceptions and spikes, usually the result of the angry and engaged electorate that is common after tumultuous presidential elections, said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics and managing editor of Professor Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter.

“That happened in 2018 because Democrats were furious at Trump,” Kondik said of the election that ended eight years of GOP House control.

Did it ever.

The more than $410 million that poured in for House and Senate candidates from donations of $200 or less two years ago dwarfed the next-highest small-check haul over the previous 10 years. It accounted for 17 percent of the $2.3 billion overall total raised in history’s most expensive congressional midterm election. Democrats got nearly three-fourths of all small donations. Ninety-two House and Senate candidates in 2018 received at least $1 million in small donations, almost triple the count of candidates who hit that threshold in 2010, the previous comparable midterm election. Fifty-seven of the 92 were Democrats.

The same backlash effect drove the Republican resurgence in the 2010 midterms, the first after President Barack Obama’s election and the rise of the Tea Party. Small contributions totaled $197.7 million that year, or 13 percent of the nearly $1.6 billion raised. GOP candidates took 62 percent of the small donations and won back a House majority Democrats held for just four years. Of the 34 candidates who reported $1 million or more in small-donations, 22 were Republicans.

Running against a compelling villain is a powerful motivating factor for successful small-donor outreach efforts, but those villains need not be presidents.

In 2018, Democrat Beto O’Rourke hauled in $37 million in small donations from across the country for his Texas Senate race. Having Sen. Ted Cruz — a Republican who makes Democrats’ blood boil — as his nemesis allowed O’Rourke to nationalize his fundraising and blow the doors off the $19 million small-donor record that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., had set in 2012. But it also created expectations for O’Rourke that he fell woefully short of in the recent Democratic presidential primaries. Inversely, having O’Rourke as his challenger helped Cruz pull in an additional $14 million from small-dollar supporters in his successful re-election bid.

Through midsummer, the 2018 small-money trends appeared to be holding steady despite the coronavirus pandemic and the economic carnage it wrought. The OpenSecrets report shows that $385 million in small contributions had been raised in July, a pace that could shatter a small-dollar donation record not yet two years old. Sixty-one candidates had already reported receiving more than $1 million in small checks — 34 of them Democrats.

Amy McGrath, a Democrat challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky this year, led all congressional hopefuls in small-dollar hauls with nearly $29 million as of midsummer.

Though Democrats have an edge in small-donor prospecting in the digital era, Republicans are hardly new to the game. In fact, they invented it, Kondik noted. Conservative direct-mail impresario Richard Viguerie revolutionized political communications and finance by marrying computer science and direct-to-consumer mail marketing to supercharge President Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election.

ActBlue, a nonprofit online conduit for small donations to Democrats and progressives, has been essential to the Democrats’ success. But Republicans are gaining ground. In the sincerest form of flattery, WinRed — ActBlue’s Republican-allied counterpart — collected $275 million for President Donald Trump and GOP candidates in just the second quarter of this year.

Trump, however, is a small-donor dynamo, with $229 million (55%) of his campaign committee’s reported $414 million in total fundraising receipts coming from small donations.

On a state level, the small-donor sector has grown over the past decade, almost exclusively for Democrats, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, the nonprofit and nonpartisan tracker of money and influence in state politics. It does not match the growth at the federal level, however. Because Virginia does not limit how much money individuals or corporations can give directly to candidates, megadonors can (and often do) pump hundreds of thousands of dollars each election cycle directly into campaigns for state legislative seats or offices such as governor or attorney general. Unburdened by “maxing out” contributors, there’s less incentive for state candidates — particularly long-tenured ones — to diversify their funding sources beyond their traditional deep-pocketed benefactors, particularly businesses.

The most notable exception has been Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William. Her successful bid to become the nation’s first openly transgender legislator and defeat Republican Del. Bob Marshall, one of the General Assembly’s most outspoken social conservatives, won her a passionate national following and base of small donors. Nearly one-fourth of the $750,981 Roem raised in her re-election bid last year came from modest donations, much of it through ActBlue. None came from business donors, according to VPAP.

Imagine what she could do with Jeb Bartlet’s help.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]