Aug 8, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Feast or famine for Trump backers

Sen. Josh Hawley is seen challenging the 2020 election results just before the Jan. 6 Capitol siege.
Sen. Josh Hawley challenges the 2020 election results just before the Jan. 6 Capitol siege. Photo: congress.gov via Getty Images

High-profile Trump backers in Congress who tried to block President Biden's election win have raked in grassroots cash this year. Many of their lesser-known rank-and-file colleagues have not.

Why it matters: New campaign finance data underscore a disparity among election objectors. Some have used the infamy to catapult themselves into MAGA stardom. Those who haven't — including some facing competitive 2022 reelection fights — are stuck with all the baggage and little financial benefit.

  • Large segments of corporate America have distanced themselves from GOP election objectors, making a robust grassroots fundraising program all the more important.

By the numbers: Axios analyzed data from midyear filings with the Federal Election Commission, and there have been some clear winners in the grassroots money race.

  • Individual donations for Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) shot up by 3,552% compared to the first six months of the 2019 cycle. Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) was up by 832%.
  • Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) pulled in 752% more in contributions in the first half of the year, even as corporate PAC donations dried up almost entirely.
  • Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who reportedly helped organize the "Stop the Steal" rally that preceded the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, raised more than four times from individual donors as much during the first six months of 2021 — when he announced his 2022 Senate bid — than he did in 2019.

Hawley, Cruz, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) — part of House leadership — and MAGA stars Gaetz and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), collectively raised $45.5 million more in individual contributions during the first half of 2021 than they did two years ago.

On the other side of the equation are lesser-known lawmakers who haven't been able to capitalize on grassroots popularity to juice their 2021 fundraising.

  • Individual donations to Mississippi Rep. Michael Guest saw an 89% decline. Rep. Scott DesJarlais' haul (R-Tenn.) dropped by 80%.
  • A pair of Republicans on House Democrats' 2022 target list saw some significant grassroots fundraising declines: Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) pulled in 45% less from individual donors than he did in 2019. The total for Rep. Dave Schweikert (R-Ariz.) was down 26%.
  • Other members whose districts were considered competitive last year also raised significantly less from individuals. The haul for Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) fell by 49%. North Carolina Rep. Dan Bishop's declined 42%. Fellow North Carolinian Rep. Richard Hudson pulled in 18% less.

Between the lines: Of the 110 objectors elected before 2020, 65 saw non-PAC fundraising decline in the first half of the year, most of them by a quarter or more.

  • Some 45 objectors brought in more than they did during the equivalent period last cycle.
  • Total grassroots fundraising by those 110 members was up by $41 million this year, but that rise was attributable entirely to huge spikes for a handful of prominent election objectors.

The bottom line: Media attention is literal currency in the modern GOP.

  • Those who can establish themselves as torch-bearers of the Trumpian right can translate any controversy into massive grassroots fundraising hauls. Those who can't must weather the fallout.
  • Doug Heye, a Harvard Institute of Politics fellow and a former senior House GOP leadership aide, called it the "immediate celebrification" of politics during an interview with Axios.

Be smart: Heye pointed to an infamous photo of Hawley raising his fist in solidarity with Jan. 6 demonstrators before they breached the Capitol.

  • "It's not an exaggeration to say that one picture is worth a million dollars," he said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that fundraising comparisons examined donations from individuals.

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