Donations to Republican lawmakers surged following the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot, even though dozens of corporations stopped contributing to members of Congress who voted to overturn the results of the election following the siege.
The biggest Republican backers of former President Donald Trump's "big lie" that the election was somehow stolen have seen a financial boom, despite many political obituaries predicting their downfall. Republican fundraising committees supporting members of Congress who objected to the electoral count outraised Democrats by more than $2 million in January alone.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who pumped his fist at the Jan. 6 mob not long before it overran the Capitol, and later led Senate objections to the certification of electoral votes, reported raising $969,000 in January, including from 12,000 new individual donors. That number marks the biggest fundraising month ever for Hawley, and is roughly eight times more than the $120,000 he raised in the entire first quarter of 2020.
"Media outlets and pundits have tried to make hay over the past few weeks because some corporate PACs paused donations to Senator Hawley," Wes Anderson, the senator's pollster, said in a memo last month. "The corporate PACs that have stopped donating account for a VERY small percentage of total fundraising that is more than offset by a huge surge in grassroots support."
The split between corporate PACs and big-money donors and the growing number of grassroots donors "reinforces that the biggest divide in today's Republican Party may be between the elites and the base," J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, told Salon by email. "While some higher-up Republicans — such as Sen. Mitch McConnell — have, at times, hinted that they'd want the party to move beyond Trump, the base seems perfectly comfortable supporting — and donating to — Trumpian candidates."
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a longtime conspiracy theorist who was among the most prominent House Republicans in pushing false claims about the election, has also raked unprecedented donations after voting to overturn the election and being stripped of her committee assignments for spreading false claims and calling for Democrats to be executed.
Greene, who reported raising $1.6 million in January amid growing media coverage of her anti-Semitic remarks, attacks on mass shooting victims and conspiracy theories about 9/11, bragged that she raised $335,000 over just two days in February ahead of the vote. It marked a massive shift from Greene's first campaign in 2020, when she raised less than $81,000 from donations of $200 or less, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Instead, Greene loaned her campaign about $950,000 in personal cash that could be repaid later with donor funds. Greene, who ran unopposed in a deep-red Georgia district last year, pledged to give about half of her take, or $175,000, to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which may help explain the Republican caucus' decision to stand by her amid the controversy. While House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., praised Greene for apologizing for her past remarks in private, she has expressed no remorse publicly and has used the controversy to solicit contributions.
"How stupid they are," Greene said of Democrats in an interview with the Washington Examiner before the vote to remove her from two committees. "They don't even realize they're helping me. I'm pretty amazed at how dumb they are."
The influx of small donations underscores how Trump, who leveraged his rabid online base into record numbers of small-dollar donations in 2016 and 2020, has upended Republican fundraising. Nearly half the $774 million Trump raised came from donations of $200 or less, compared to just 17% of Mitt Romney's haul in 2012.
The Republican online fundraising platform WinRed, which was launched in response to the success of the Democrats' ActBlue, has also made it easier for grassroots supporters to contribute to specific candidates' campaigns. Once reliant on corporate donations and large donors, Trump allies like Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Devin Nunes, R-Calif., have "tapped Trump's grassroots supporters to become top small-dollar fundraisers," according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
While the Capitol riot brought widespread mainstream condemnation and corporate boycotts, Trump's popularity quickly rebounded to pre-riot numbers among Republican voters, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll, and his new super PAC raised $31.5 million in January alone. The survey found that just 27% of Republicans hold Trump at least partially responsible for the riot and only 24% blamed congressional Republicans, while 46% of GOP voters blame President Biden and 58% blame congressional Democrats.
An analysis by Reuters found that the more than 45 corporate political action committees that vowed to cut off funds to Republicans who objected to the electoral count had given those 147 lawmakers about $5 million during the last election cycle, or just 1% of the money they raised. Since the riot, the National Republican Congressional Committee reported raising $7.5 million in January, outraising Democrats by about $500,000. The National Republican Senate Committee raised another $8.3 million in January, outpacing Democrats by more than $2 million, and another $6.4 million in February.
"Corporate PACs are a diminishing part of the mix as small donations ramp up because of the wild success that ActBlue and now WinRed are having," Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said in an interview with Salon. But mega-donors and some corporations still play "important roles," she said, because they are increasingly contributing to outside groups that spend significant sums of money in the most competitive races.
It's not surprising that Hawley and Greene have been the biggest beneficiaries of the donation influx.
"It's always been true that if you say inflammatory things you'll get noticed, and notice gets donations," Krumholz said. "It's incontrovertible: When you look at the members who are receiving the greatest portions of their funds from small donors, we see some of the members who are viewed as most extreme ideologically," she added. "But that may also be true for large donors."
Some Republican mega-donors, like the Mercer family, have focused their donations toward some of the most far-right members of Congress and outside groups, many of which promoted Trump's "big lie" for months. While Trump personally brought in unprecedented amounts of small-dollar donations, he also benefited from massive contributions to his PACs, like the $75 million check the late casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife cut last year.
Krumholz also stressed that it is very early in the cycle to be fundraising as aggressively as Hawley and Greene.
"There isn't any kind of balancing effect at this point in the cycle," she said, meaning that with the midterm elections more than a year away, there's no need to appeal to a broader base. "So this is really focused on events of the 6th and actions taken since. The money surge is around that which is going to incentivize certain types of more ideologically extreme donors."
Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor and CEO of the energy firm Canary LLC, agreed that platforms like WinRed and the explosion of text-message-based mobile fundraising have been a "game-changer" for Republicans, who have traditionally trailed Democrats in grassroots fundraising.
"People are spending a lot more time in front of multiple screens this past year and are seeing a lot more solicitations for political donations," he said in an email. "At the same time, they are reading news stories online that are driving them to click on that political ad. … We're also just more polarized and engaged in politics than we have been in the recent past. That's pushing people to get involved in politics and the easiest way to do that is click the 'give now' button and donate $5. It doesn't sound like a lot of money, but boy does it add up."
Coleman, of Sabato's Crystal Ball, noted that recent voting and registration patterns show that high-income suburbs where many moderate Republicans have traditionally raised large sums of cash are increasingly moving toward the Democrats, which could force Republican fundraising pitches to become even more extreme.
"I wouldn't be surprised if, longer term, that pushes the GOP rightward in its grassroots fundraising pitches as well," he said, "given that those higher-income and corporate donors are increasingly less receptive to the party."
But Eberhart predicted that "corporate PACs aren't going anywhere," particularly when it comes to individual issues that could impact their interests.
Some corporate PACs have already dropped any plans to halt donations. The Chamber of Commerce, the top business lobby in the country, announced earlier this month that it would not withhold donations to lawmakers who objected to the electoral certification.
"We do not believe it is appropriate to judge members of Congress solely based on their votes on the electoral certification. There is a meaningful difference between a member of Congress who voted no on the question of certifying the votes of certain states and those who engaged and continue to engage in repeated actions that undermine the legitimacy of our elections and institutions," Ashlee Rich Stephenson, a senior political strategist at the organization, said in a memo. "For example, casting a vote is different than organizing the rally of January 6th or continuing to push debunked conspiracy theories. We will take into consideration actions such as these and future conduct that erodes our democratic institutions."
In fact, there's no indication that Republicans are backing away from the "big lie." Instead, they have made it a core part of their platform. The party has rolled out hundreds of proposed voter restrictions across the country after losing a presidential election that saw record turnout despite the coronavirus pandemic, with many Republicans citing voters' concerns about "election integrity" — concerns that were manufactured and inflamed by Trump and his allies' false claims. A poll last month found that a majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was invalid, although there is no evidence to suggest any widespread fraud or election-rigging.
In fact, the only lingering fundraising concern for Republicans some two months after the riot is Trump himself. The ex-president recently demanded that the NRCC, the NRSC and the Republican National Committee stop using his name and image to raise funds, apparently because he holds a grudge against the handful Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach or convict him for inciting the January insurrection. Trump later called on his supporters to send donations directly to his PAC after the RNC balked at his cease-and-desist letter.
"No more money for RINOS," Trump said in a statement, referring to "Republicans in name only."
"They do nothing but hurt the Republican Party and our great voting base — they will never lead us to Greatness," he said. "Send your donation to Save America PAC at DonaldJTrump.com. We will bring it all back stronger than ever before!"
That may be why, despite the unprecedented fundraising boom, some Republicans still worry they could face financial trouble in their bid to retake both chambers of Congress next year. Dan Conston, who runs the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP super PAC, warned in a memo earlier this month that the "single biggest threat to Republicans taking back the Majority is insufficient candidate fundraising."
Krumholz called Trump's demand "unprecedented," saying she had "just never heard of such a thing. That may pose a challenge to them moving forward."
Jordan Libowitz, communications director at the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the move was "not surprising." While many Republicans "may not be happy with what [Trump is] doing, for once he's not actually breaking any rules."
"He's never been party-first, in fact, he's never been anything but Trump-first," Libowitz said in a statement to Salon. "By directing the money to his leadership PAC, he'll be able to spend it at Trump businesses with very little in the way of regulation. He can rent out his properties, hire Ivanka as a consultant and pay himself to travel on his own plane."
While using donor money for personal gain would turn off many supporters in the past, "I don't really know if it's possible for Trump to go too far," Eberhart said. "What taboo in politics is left for him to break?"
Trump has amassed about $80 million in cash on hand for his Save America PAC, which aggressively solicited funds for his election challenges but ultimately spent very little of that on actual legal costs.
"He can play kingmaker in the Republican Party or he can use it to benefit himself and his family," Eberhart said. "Trump's political aspirations have always been about the glory of Trump. What he decides to do with those funds will determine what the Republican Party looks like for the next decade."