WASHINGTON -- On April 15, 2009, Rep. Paul Ryan took to a stage in Madison, Wis., to address a crowd of angry conservative activists at one of the very first Tea Party rallies. Ryan told the cheering audience of Gadsden flag wavers that the United States under President Barack Obama, then almost three months into his first term, was headed towards "big government, European-style socialism." The Obama administration and their supporters "want you to pay up and shut up," he told the crowd.
The event, the first of many Tea Party rallies attended by Ryan, was a turning point in his career. Ryan has transformed himself in recent years from a traditional Washington fundraiser, focused on contributions from corporate political action committees and constituents in his home state of Wisconsin, into one of the top congressional fundraisers, with a strong connection to the party's conservative small-donor base across the country.
The support from grassroots conservatives that Ryan has built up over the past three years has injected new life into the moribund small-donor fundraising operation of the Romney campaign. In the first 72 hours since the Wisconsin congressman was added to the ticket, the campaign raised $7.9 million from more than 100,000 donations, according to a tweet from campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
Prior to Ryan's arrival on the ticket, the Romney campaign had raised little from donors giving under $200. Romney has raised only 15 percent of his contributions from small donors, compared to 39 percent for the Obama campaign.
Ryan had raised $4.4 million for his 2012 congressional campaign before being chosen to join the Romney ticket. That was the fourth-highest total among House candidates. He also raised the sixth most -- $1.2 million -- from donors giving under $200.
Ryan's fundraising from small donors has exploded since the advent of the Tea Party and his rise as a public face for the movement's opposition to Obama. The $1.2 million raised from small donors so far in the 2012 cycle is already four times more than the amount he raised for the 2008 election.
Big donors outside of Wisconsin have also been important source for Ryan's campaigns in the last four years. Since 2008, the amount from donors giving over $1,000 to Ryan's campaigns has doubled, from $1.15 million to $2.3 million. The New York Times reported on Ryan's recent introductions to big Republican donors like Chicago hedge fund manager Ken Griffin and the New York-based hedge funder Cliff Asness.
Thanks to this fundraising, Ryan currently sits on the biggest pile of campaign money of any House candidate, with $5.4 million cash on hand.
It wasn't always this way for Ryan. His early career in Congress mirrored that of other well-financed congressmen. He raised above average amounts -- between $1.2 million and $1.4 million per election from 1998 through 2006 -- while relying heavily on corporate PACs, big-dollar contributions and donations from Republican Party political committees.
Contributions from PACs consistently accounted for more than 40 percent of Ryan's campaign contributions through the 2008 election. These groups represent a list of industries that reads like an index of the Fortune 500, including insurance, Wall Street, oil and gas, prescription drugs and others.
"Paul Ryan has this image as a very serious member of Congress, but you look at his fundraising, he's much more of a fundraiser than people realize," says David Donnelly, the executive director of the campaign finance watchdog Public Campaign Action Fund. "He's raised a lot of money from groups that have interests before his committees."
An appointment to the powerful tax-writing Ways & Means Committee certainly helped fuel that fundraising.
Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan, pro-transparency Sunlight Foundation, is the author of a study examining the change in fundraising that occurs after appointments to different congressional committees. Topping the list as most beneficial for a member: Ways & Means.
"The boost in that is all in PAC contributions," Drutman says. "It's all the big industry groups that care about tax policy, and they want to make sure that you know who they are."
Even more important, in terms of fundraising, is being elevated to a top spot on a committee.
Ryan's above-average fundraising and lack of competition allowed him to build up a massive war chest, one that he shared with other congressmen, candidates and the party's congressional campaign committee. Money being the means to ascent in Congress, Ryan leapfrogged over more senior Republicans to win the top slot on the budget committee in 2007, after Democrats won control of Congress for the first time in 12 years.
After his appointment, Ryan's campaign saw a considerable boost in its fundraising. He pulled in $1.9 million for his 2008 campaign -- $500,000 more than he had raised in previous cycles -- due to contributions from PACs and small donors.
He also continued to raise his profile within the party by joining with Reps. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), both fundraising rockstars, in creating the "Young Guns" program, which sent money and provided fundraising support from the three representatives to youngish conservative candidates.
The appointment to lead Republican messaging on the budget also provided Ryan with a bully pulpit for his ideas on privatizing Social Security and Medicare and capping the federal budget. He used this position to promote his own budgets -- with lofty titles like the "Roadmap for America's Future" and "The Path to Prosperity" -- to counter Democratic proposals.
These budgets made him popular with outside conservative groups with large grassroots memberships, many of which would go on to fuel the Tea Party with money and supporters in 2009 and 2010.
In 2008, the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the powerful conservative organization founded by the Kansas-based oil billionaires David and Charles Koch, bussed in supporters for a Ryan rally in Janesville in support of one of his budgets, which would've created private accounts for Social Security, capped government spending, and would've turned Medicare into a private insurance system akin to the prescription drug benefit passed by Republicans in 2003.
"This bill is about getting back to common sense and fiscal responsibility," Mark Block, the head of Americans for Prosperity's Wisconsin chapter, said in a statement at the time. The Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity would go on to give Ryan their annual "Defender of the American Dream" award for his budget.
As soon as Obama entered the White House, Ryan's star began to rise. As the president's chief opponent on budgetary issues, Ryan's rhetoric echoed that of the nascent Tea Party movement when he wrote in an April 1, 2009, op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, "If [President Obama's] agenda comes to pass, it will mark this period in history as the moment America turned European."
From 2009 to 2010, as Ryan was promoted by outside conservative groups and through conservative media, his small-donor fundraising exploded. He raised $839,529 from donors giving under $200 in the 2010 election -- $500,000 more than he had ever previously raised from grassroots donors.
Sensing the shift in political fortunes for congressional Republicans, PACs kicked in more money than ever to Ryan's coffers, as it looked like he would become the next budget committee chairman. Ryan raised $1.2 million from PACs, although, thanks to his growing exposure outside of Wisconsin and Washington, they made up a much smaller percentage of his total contributions -- 31 percent -- than in previous years.
The Tea Party-backed Republican victory in 2010 brought Ryan into the chairman's seat on the budget committee, ensuring even more fundraising success. According to research by the Sunlight Foundation's Drutman, committee chairmanships are the biggest fundraising prize in Congress.
"Almost always, being a chair is a tremendous fundraising boost, because the chair sets the agenda for the committee," Drutman said. "[There's a] half a million dollar bonus for being the chairman of the budget committee."
But Ryan's fundraising has already eclipsed that $500,000 bonus a little more than halfway through 2012. Much of that can be attributed to his growing success with small-donor contributions, which have flooded his campaign coffers. The 2012 election cycle was the first in which small donors made up a higher percentage of Ryan's campaign contributions than PACs.