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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, October 07, 2017 1:00 am

Small donations to Trump fattening party's war chest

Matea Gold | Washington Post

Fueled by a string of fundraising appeals from President Donald Trump to his supporters, the Republican Party is on track to raise more money from small-dollar contributions than it has collected in more than a decade.

The influx of cash from Trump's base is helping the GOP amass a major advantage as the parties prepare to battle for control of Congress in the 2018 elections, with the Republican National Committee pulling in nearly twice as much money overall as its Democratic counterpart this year.

The RNC's success with small donors illustrates how the Republican Party, long a center of the political establishment, has managed to turn Trump's anti-Washington message to its advantage.

And it shows how Trump's base, angered by the sense that the president is being treated unfairly, is helping to redefine a party that has long cultivated rich contributors.

This year, more than $40 million of the $68 million in direct contributions to the RNC by the end of August came in donations of $200 and less – nearly 60 percent of contributions, campaign finance data shows.

One key asset for the party: Trump's willingness to lend his name to a barrage of party appeals, such as an email last month that urged donors to help “drain the swamp,” the president's favorite term for the Beltway elite. Another message from Trump urged supporters to fight back against a “weak and self-serving political class.”

The national party also gets a cut of donations flowing to the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a joint fundraising committee that primarily benefits Trump's re-election campaign but currently gives a quarter of its proceeds to the RNC.

The joint committee notes its RNC affiliation at the bottom of donor emails. But the messages are crafted to resonate with voters who believe the president is fighting entrenched interests in both parties.

“I want to show every Republican Senator a list of American voters that will NOT be happy if the wall isn't built,” read a message the committee sent out in Trump's name in August, referring to his plan to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Among those who have donated to the committee is Martha Adams, a longtime Republican voter who said she is “a little miffed” at the GOP and party leaders she feels are out of touch with the base's populist mood. That's in part why she's been responding to emails asking her to support Trump's agenda.

“He's got a lot of roadblocks,” said Adams, 70, a retired speech pathologist from Austin, Texas, who said she has given a few hundred dollars this year – including $75 in May, two days after the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller. “It's just to let him know we still care and that we're still here.”

Adams said that when she donated to the joint committee, she intended for her money to go to the president.

“I tried to give just to him, because I think he knows best what to do,” she said. “I don't know if I really meant to give it to the RNC.”

Gwynne Abrams, an unemployed nanny in Henderson, Nevada, who gave $78 to the joint committee, said that Trump has been “under attack” from his own party. She plans to vote for the GOP challenger taking on incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller in her state next year.

“I'm not giving to the Republican Party, really,” said Abrams, 56, adding that the party has “done nothing since they've been in control of the Senate and House.”

“I think our politicians are being bought off, except for Mr. Trump,” she added.

RNC officials said that the money that ends up at the national committee directly bolsters Trump, financing a rapid-response operation and surrogate network that promote the administration's goals. New investments in data analytics and field staff will boost Trump's 2020 re-election effort, they said.

In his 2016 campaign, Trump raised an unprecedented $239 million from donors who gave him a total of $200 or less. That's more than Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and rival Bernie Sanders combined pulled in from low-dollar contributors during the election – and beats the nearly $219 million that former President Barack Obama raised from small donors in his 2012 re-election, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.

“It was extraordinary,” said Michael Malbin, the institute's executive director. “It says that his donors are intensely committed.”

The money cascaded in after the Trump campaign and the RNC spent tens of millions running Facebook ads and renting email lists to build a formidable digital fundraising operation. Together, the committees amassed a pool of more than 10 million email address by the end of 2016 – including those of more than 2.5 million individual donors.

Since then, the party's fundraising email list has grown by several million, and several hundred thousand new donors have contributed who did not give in 2016, RNC officials said.

The $40 million in low-dollar donations the RNC has raised so far this year is the most the party has collected at this point in an election cycle since 2005, according to records compiled by the Campaign Finance Institute. And it outstrips small contributions going to the Democratic National Committee, which raised $25 million in such donations by the end of last month.

More money for the RNC is flowing through the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, which had pulled in $14.4 million as of June 30, including $11 million in donations of $200 and less, filings show.

The committee confirmed it is helping pay for the legal fees Trump has incurred because of the Russia investigations, but those costs are being covered by a legal account financed by wealthy donors, not small contributions.

The response from small-dollar donors is largely driven by Trump, who has played up his grievances against Washington amid the flurry of controversies that have enveloped his administration.