Trump’s fundraising whiplash highlights GOP’s small-donor issue

Ex-president is ‘lifeblood’ of grassroots donations, says one Republican

President Donald Trump initially told GOP campaign committees they could not use his name and likeness in fundraising solicitations.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald Trump initially told GOP campaign committees they could not use his name and likeness in fundraising solicitations. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 10, 2021 at 1:55pm

Donald Trump’s conflicting statements this week about whether Republican campaign committees can use his likeness to fundraise has underscored a broader problem facing the GOP: tapping into the grassroots donors who fueled the former president’s record-breaking campaign hauls. 

“Republicans know that Trump helped them raise more money than I think they would have imagined,” said Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “Some of that money came in big checks, but a lot of it came in small-dollar donations, one at a time. To potentially have that spigot cut off should be troubling.” 

Republicans have been sounding the alarm about small-dollar fundraising since the 2018 midterms, when Democrats tapped into a grassroots anti-Trump sentiment to raise eye-popping numbers, helping to fuel the blue wave that flipped the House. 

After 2018, the GOP developed an online fundraising platform called WinRed to counter Democrats’ platform, ActBlue. Republican candidates saw improvements in online and grassroots donations in the 2020 election cycle but still lagged behind Democrats in many races. 

In January, the congressional committees did see increases in unitemized donations, or contributions less than $200, compared to January 2019. The National Republican Congressional Committee raked in $4.3 million in small-dollar donations, while the National Republican Senatorial Committee raised $3.5 million. Both more than doubled their small-dollar hauls compared to the same point in the last election cycle. 

But fundraising is still raising concerns among Republicans. 

Dan Conston, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a House GOP super PAC, wrote in a memo earlier this month, “The single biggest threat to Republicans taking back the Majority is insufficient candidate fundraising.”

While GOP candidates have tried to tap into grassroots fundraising, Trump has energized small-dollar donors for his own campaign. In recent days, he has threatened to cut GOP campaign committees off from using his name to fundraise. 

Over the weekend, Trump reportedly sent a cease-and-desist letter to the RNC and both House and Senate GOP campaign committees, imploring them not to use his name and likeness in fundraising solicitations, Politico first reported. The RNC responded by saying it had a right to refer to public figures. 

Trump then issued a statement Monday night encouraging his supporters to donate to his own PAC, called Save America

“No more money for RINOS,” he said, using the acronym for “Republicans in name only.” 

“They do nothing but hurt the Republican Party and our great voting base — they will never lead us to Greatness,” Trump added. “Send your donation to Save America PAC at DonaldJTrump.com. We will bring it all back stronger than ever before!”

Trump appeared to reverse course less than 24 hours later, saying in a statement Tuesday evening, “I fully support the Republican Party and important GOP Committees, but I do not support RINOs and fools, and it is not their right to use my likeness or image to raise funds.”

It is not clear what Trump’s latest statement means for the cease-and-desist letter sent to the campaign committees. Spokespersons for the RNC and the NRSC did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the NRCC said it had no comment. 

If the committees cannot use Trump to energize donors, that could be a problem, said Heye, since Trump has been “the lifeblood of small-dollar fundraising.” 

“It may be hard to go back and appeal to those people who are coming in at $10 a month or something like that, because basically Trump, who they’re going to listen to more than anyone else, tells them not to,” Heye said. 

The NRSC announced Wednesday that it raised more than $6.4 million in February, including $3.8 million online from more than 77,000 donors.

A day earlier, Chairman Rick Scott declined to answer directly on whether the committee would continue to reference Trump in fundraising pitches. 

“We’re continuing to fundraise at the NRSC. We had a great January. We beat all the other committees, and we had a good February,” the Florida Republican told reporters at the Capitol. “So we’re going to keep fundraising.” 

Lindsey McPherson, Katherine Tully-McManus, Kate Ackley and Herb Jackson contributed to this report.