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House Democrats Cash In With Online Fundraising Program

Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call
The DCCC, which is led by Rep. Steve Israel , took in an online total of almost $50 million in the 2012 election cycle and even had a few million-dollar days.

It’s usually easier to bring in big bucks when your party holds the speaker’s gavel. But last cycle, House Democrats crushed their competitors thanks to a dramatic spike in online fundraising.

In the 2010 cycle, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised $14.6 million online; in 2012 it took in $49.3 million — a total representing one-third of its revenue. In the previous two cycles, online donations accounted for 5 percent to 9 percent of the DCCC’s total haul, according to DCCC fundraising figures provided exclusively to CQ Roll Call.

The online boom more than leveled the fundraising playing field for the minority party, allowing the campaign arm to raise $28 million more than its GOP counterparts last cycle.

“As a program that used to have a $50,000 day and [we’d] do high-fives in the hallway, doing million dollar days was just amazing,” said Brandon English, the committee’s digital director who has worked in that department since 2006.

The DCCC had a few “million-dollar days” last cycle. It raised $1.3 million online the day after the Republican National Convention. The DCCC brought in $2.3 million online in the 48 hours following Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan’s nomination speech at the convention.

That’s more than the National Republican Congressional Committee raised in small-dollar donations (under $200) for the entire month of August, according to online fundraising records. These small-dollar donations compose the majority of online fundraising — for example, the DCCC’s average online gift was $31 last cycle.

NRCC officials declined to divulge their online fundraising totals for recent cycles. But records show the DCCC pulled in more than three times as much as the NRCC in small-dollar donations last cycle.

House Republicans have taken note of the DCCC’s success. NRCC Digital Director Gerrit Lansing said the committee will triple its digital department staff for the 2014 cycle.

“When NRCC Chairman Greg Walden took over he made a strategic decision to invest heavily in our Digital Department and we’re determined to help set new standards for Digital both on the Right and the Left,” Lansing said in an email to CQ Roll Call. “To that end, the NRCC has tripled their Digital staff to 10, and prioritized the Department with a Vice-Chair on the Executive Committee in Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah.

“We will not be behind online ever again,” he added.

Republicans have serious ground to make up in this realm — not just in the House, but across the GOP. Democrats have led the way in online fundraising on the national level since its existence. Howard Dean sparked Internet fundraising fire with his presidential campaign 2004, and President Barack Obama brought it to full blaze in 2008.

But while national Democrats saw their online donations skyrocket, Internet fundraising remained a tough nut for campaign committees to crack.

Typically, small-dollar donors rally around a candidate or a cause. It’s much harder to entice a new or occasional donor to give to a political committee — perhaps the most emblematic symbol of the Washington, D.C., establishment.

“It is hard to raise money at committees online,” said Vincent Harris, a digital media strategist for Republicans. “America is a candidate-centric electoral system. People want to give money to candidate. They don’t want to give money to a committee.”

In 2012, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised more than $35 million online — three times what it raised four years ago, according to a committee official. The DSCC raised nearly twice as much from small-dollar donations, $49 million, as the National Republican Senatorial Committee did last cycle, according to online records.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee doubled its 2008 online haul, and tripled its 2010 online revenue, committee spokesman Brad Dayspring said. He declined to give exact dollar figures.

But generally Senate races have it easier than House races when it comes to raising money online. Typically, Senate candidates have the bandwidth and resources to build their own lucrative online fundraising shops.

Last cycle, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., raised an astounding $24 million online, according to a DSCC official. At the same time, Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., raised large sums online, $7.1 million and $4.5 million, respectively, said the DSCC official.

The only House members who came close to that sum are candidates with national profiles, such as Speaker John A. Boehner, former Rep. Allen B. West, R-Fla., or Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

For the most part, House candidates don’t have the campaign bandwidth to run robust and targeted online fundraising programs — at least not yet.

“I’m not talking about let’s pull a [fundraising] list with everyone with poodles,” said Mark Nevins, a Democratic fundraiser and former DCCC aide. “That’s the sort of thing that the Obama campaign could do. A Congressional campaign just doesn’t have that kind of resource — financial or time.”

That’s where the House campaign committees can be particularly influential. It can support digital campaigns for candidates, and it can raise serious funds online for independent expenditures later in the cycle.

The DCCC’s plans to increase the size of its digital department staff for 2014 — much like every other congressional campaign committee.

The DCCC won’t have Obama’s re-election campaign to compete with this midterm cycle, and the president has agreed to help House Democrats with fundraising for their effort to win the 17 seats needed to make Pelosi speaker again.

House Democrats expect their fundraising program to be even more lucrative in 2014.

“It is easier certainly to fundraise when you are the underdog,” Harris said. “It’s harder for Republicans to build a fortress, than for Democrats to built the canons to shoot at the fortress.”

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