What do the woman who founded the Congressional Tea Party Caucus, the co-chairmen of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the U.S. Senate’s lone self-described “democratic socialist” have in common?
They all rank among the top beneficiaries of small-dollar political donors, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal records.
It’s firm evidence that neither Democrats nor Republicans in Congress have a monopoly on small-dollar givers, who often serve as barometers for a candidate’s grassroots support.
And the correlation between politicians with fervent beliefs and small-dollar givers lies at the heart of an ongoing debate about the role and significance of modest contributions from the masses in a political age often dominated by sizable contributions from a wealthy few.
Do passionate defenders of ideological views attract small-dollar donors? Do small-dollar givers push politicians to the partisan extremes? And are small-dollar donors ideologically dissimilar from the average voter or their large-dollar counterparts?
During the 2012 election cycle, Tea Party Caucus founder Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., collected both more cash and a larger portion of her congressional campaign war chest from small-dollar contributions than any other incumbent politician at the federal level, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis.
Donations of $200 or less, the threshold at which the Federal Election Commission requires itemization in campaign finance reports, amounted to more than $9.5 million — or 62 percent of the $15 million Bachmann raised for her 2012 re-election efforts.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a left-leaning independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, collected nearly $3.7 million — or 59 percent of his total $6.3 million — from such small-dollar giving. That was enough to rank the self-described socialist as second among incumbents, in terms of percentage of receipts from modest donors.
Attribute this success to the senator’s “career standing up to the most powerful special interests in the country and vigorously representing the needs of the elderly, the children, the sick and low-income Americans,” said Ben Eisenberg, the finance director of Sanders’ campaign.
“People in Vermont and across the country appreciate Bernie’s efforts,” Eisenberg added.
Former Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., another darling of tea party activists, ranked third. Ahead of his narrow defeat by Democrat Patrick Murphy in November, West collected $9.3 million in contributions of $200 or less — nearly half of the $19 million he raised.
Representatives for Bachmann and West did not respond to requests for comment.
Tapping the grassroots
Among non-incumbents who raised at least six figures, Republican congressional challengers John Dennis of California, Anna Little of New Jersey, Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher of Ohio, Karen Harrington of Florida and Chris Fields of Minnesota placed as the top five beneficiaries — percentage-wise — of small-dollar support, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis.
Each reported raising at least half of their funds as coming from contributions of $200 or less.
Money from grassroots supporters doesn’t always translate into electoral success. Incumbency still remains a most powerful force.
Dennis, for instance, raised 84 percent of his campaign cash from low-dollar gifts and received just 15 percent of the vote in his longshot bid to unseat Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
All the while, Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Reps. Carolyn McCarthy of New York, Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, also ranked highly among incumbents who raised a lofty portion of their campaign war chest from small-dollar contributions.
And Florida Democrat Alan Grayson pulled in $2.5 million from small-dollar gifts — more than any other House candidate — ahead of his victory last November. That sum accounted for roughly 47 percent of the $5.4 million he raised overall in the race.
Grijalva and Ellison are the co-chairmen of the Progressive Caucus.
In a telephone interview, Grijalva told the Center that “grassroots” donors help “shift the balance of power.”
“The lady that sends me 10 bucks out of her Social Security check for six months is at the table when I’m making a decision as much as a captain of industry is sitting at the table trying to affect the decision,” he said. “It equalizes things.”
Peggy May, McCarthy’s campaign treasurer, noted that the New York congresswoman “wants to foster an environment in which everyone can get involved and make a difference, no matter how small.”
McCarthy, whose husband was killed in a 1993 mass shooting on the Long Island Railroad, “is a singular figure in Congress when it comes to fighting to reduce gun violence,” May said. “She fights for this issue even when it's not in the headlines and her supporters recognize that.”
Overall, the median portion of campaign funds raised by an incumbent House member during the 2012 election cycle from small-dollar gifts was about 4 percent, and the median portion raised by an incumbent senator was about 11 percent.
Celebrity breeds small-donor success
Recently, Washington Post policy wonk blogger Ezra Klein argued that “small money is polarizing.”
“Small money will turn on you if you dare cut a deal with the other side,” Klein wrote. “Small money attacks the bipartisanship that, for better and worse, is required for the system to function.”
Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, and Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, disagree.
When you raise political money, Ornstein told the Center for Public Integrity, you “naturally” attract support first from partisans. But you can change the system to expand the donor base “beyond those who are the most intense.”
Added Malbin: “Small-donor fundraising presumes that you will be known by a large enough number of people to get a decent response.”
Politicians typically achieve small-donor fundraising success because they have “gotten some celebrity either because they are leaders or because of statements they’ve made,” Malbin continued.
Both Malbin and Ornstein contend that small-dollar donors are a counterweight against corruption.
Ornstein says that under the current system, where most politicians chase large-dollar contributions, the potential for corruption is two-fold: Lawmakers can “shakedown” donors, and donors can make “explicit threats” to members of Congress.
Small-dollar donors, Ornstein said, “just don’t provide those kinds of problems.”
The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org.