Huge Demonstrations, Huge (Low-Dollar) Donations

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Martha Obermiller of Denver, right, chants during a rally protesting the immigration policies of President Donald Trump, near the White House in Washington, Saturday, Febuary 4, 2017. 

It will take months to establish whether Democrats can transform the grassroots energy that’s driving demonstrators to street protests, airports and town hall meetings into actual electoral gains.

But by one measure, party leaders and their allies are already cashing in on a key ingredient of political clout: Money. Public reports do not yet show how much Democratic Party committees and political groups have raised since January, but organizers say the money is flowing in—much of it in low-dollar donations from first-time contributors.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had a “record-smashing month” for an off-year election in January, says one aide, pulling in $4.1 million via digital fundraising alone. That’s twice the committee’s online haul in January of 2015. The average gift this January was $18.  

Liberal issue groups are also cleaning up. The women’s PAC EMILY’s List doubled its pool of online “sustainers,” who make regular automatic gifts to the group, in the weeks following Election Day. Unsolicited gifts poured in, according to a spokeswoman, 60 percent of them from new donors.

Planned Parenthood has received 400,000 donations since Election Day, and recently received gifts of $1 million each from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and from businesswoman and philanthropist Elaine Wynn. America Votes, which acts as a nerve center of sorts for progressive organizers, has also received a surge in low-dollar contributions of $100 or less since January 1, organizers say, pulling in six times more than it did during the same window last year.

Democratic candidates, too, are reporting some grassroots fundraising windfalls. Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Tom Perriello, a Democrat who previously served in the House, raised more than $1.1 million in the first month of his candidacy. In the crowded primary to succeed ex-Representative Tom Price, the Republican just confirmed as Donald Trump’s new Health and Human Services Secretary, former Democratic Capitol Hill aide Jon Ossoff collected more than $500,000 through the liberal advocacy group Daily Kos.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the public outrage and concern triggered by the Trump presidency has been the American Civil Liberties Union, which raised $24 million in the days following Trump’s refugee travel ban, now tied up in court. Trump is also driving donations to environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, which reported 50,000 donations in the first three weeks following the election. The money going to civil liberties and environmental groups does not translate directly into help for candidates, of course. But the momentum generated by progressive advocacy can spill over into campaigns.

Some of the early money is translating directly into new programs. Having received both record numbers of donations and also thousands of contacts from women interested in running for office, EMILY’s List launched a new program dubbed Run to Win, to help recruit and train prospective candidates. The DCCC launched a “March Into ’18” project to target 20 Republican-held House districts that represents its earliest such program for a midterm election.

A big focus for many Democrats is rebuilding state legislatures dominated heavily by Republicans, with an eye to the redrawing of district lines that will take place following the 2020 census. Republicans control 32 of the nation’s 50 state legislatures, and in half the states, the GOP controls both the legislature and the governor’s mansion.

That’s prompted the web startup Flippable to mobilize Democrats to “flip” state legislative seats from red to blue. The group has netted about $180,000 since its mid-November launch, in donations averaging $24 apiece. Flippable organizers put a grand total of $100 into Facebook ads, but otherwise raised the money entirely by word of mouth.

A lot of the new money fueling Democrats and their progressive allies is, in fact, coming from low-dollar donors. The conservative Tea Party movement, which some progressives have deliberately set out to emulate, was largely funded from the top down by such deep-pocketed groups as FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, and the advocacy organizations underwritten by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.

By contrast, many of the small checks fueling the Democratic resistance are flowing to startup, sometimes volunteer-run groups that have no affiliation to the established party or its institutional allies. SwingLeft, another startup focused on returning the House to Democratic control, has built an email list of more than 200,000 people since its January launch.

But Democrats are looking to raise big money, too. The top outside group in the 2016 election was Priorities USA Action, a Democratic super PAC that backed Hillary Clinton, but that has now reinvented itself as a progressive advocacy organization. Its exact mission is not yet clear, but its new website offers a clue. Acknowledging that the recent wave of progressive activism has been likened to the Tea Party movement, the group’s website notes that the Tea Party “was aided by conservative advocacy groups that lent their support to help build the movement’s infrastructure and maximize its electoral impact. Priorities USA is well positioned to play a similar role to aid the rise of the grassroots movement resisting the Trump presidency.”

In last year’s election, Priorities USA Action spent $133.4 million. The group won’t make its first public disclosures to the Federal Election Commission until the end of the first quarter. But Democrats will be watching closely for yet another clue as to whether today’s protests translate into something they can bank on.

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