Apr 18, 2021 - Politics & Policy

GOP pivot: Big business to small dollars

Illustration of an elephant's feet climbing stacks of pennies

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Republican leaders turned to grassroots supporters and raked in sizable donations after corporations cut them off post-Jan. 6.

Why it matters: If those companies hoped to push the GOP toward the center, they may have done just the opposite by turning Republican lawmakers toward their most committed — and ideologically driven — supporters.

By the numbers: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s campaign committee didn’t get a single corporate PAC donation during the first quarter of the year, new reports show.

  • Compare that to Q1 2019, when the McConnell Senate Committee received $625,000 from 157 corporate PACs and trade associations.
  • Yet McConnell’s total haul this year was about $100,000 larger than the same period last cycle. The Kentuckian brought in more than $1.9 million — all from individual donors.
  • That included more than $700,000 from “unitemized” donations, or those under $200, compared to less than $200,000 in that classification during Q1 2019.

The same pattern is evident for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. His campaign received nearly $2.2 million in contributions from January through March, compared with under $1.7 million during the first quarter of 2019.

  • Like McConnell, McCarthy did it with next to no corporate support. The Californian got more than $300,000 from 66 companies and trade groups in Q1 2019.
  • This year, just two PACs — the National Federation of Independent Businesses and a trade group representing California beet growers — gave him a total of $2,800.
  • Small-dollar donations to McCarthy also spiked: he received nearly $1.4 million in unitemized donations, compared with under $190,000 during Q1 2019.

The big picture: January’s Capitol insurrection and subsequent fights over voting rights laws drove a wedge between corporate America and their traditional Republican allies.

  • Many businesses stopped giving while they reviewed their policies and lawmaker behavior, forcing lawmakers to look elsewhere.
  • While McConnell raked in individual donations, he also became the face of the GOP’s feud with corporate America. He warned of “serious consequences” for companies that use financial and political muscle to advance policy goals at odds with the GOP.
  • His fundraising appeals, meanwhile, plugged issues sure to resonate with the party’s grassroots, such as voter fraud, media bias and “cancel culture.”

Between the lines: It’s those sorts of issues — as well as public fealty to former President Donald Trump — that have produced some of the GOP’s biggest fundraising successes of late.

  • Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas — who drew corporate America’s ire for leading efforts to block certification of President Biden’s victory — both posted mammoth first-quarter fundraising numbers, despite bringing in a combined total of just $4,400 in corporate PAC money.
  • Far-right freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who was stripped of her committee assignments in February, received more than $3.2 million in Q1, more than any other non-leadership House member of either party. More than three quarters of it came from small-dollar donations.
  • In Arkansas, former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ gubernatorial campaign shattered state fundraising records, bringing in over $4.8 million in the first quarter.

Yes, but: Some GOP members of Congress who voted to impeach Trump also posted impressive first-quarter fundraising numbers.

  • Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the House GOP conference chair and one of Trump's most high-profile Republican critics, raised about $1.5 million. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) brought in more than $1.1 million.
  • Many of those members have also attracted GOP primary challengers and drawn Trump's personal ire. Their opponents likely will be strong grassroots fundraisers going forward.
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