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Can You Still Get Elected to Congress With Only Small Donors?

Rep. John Sarbanes is conducting an experiment to see if he can raise enough money for a competitive re-election race--without large donors or PAC funds.

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“Other members are interested in this, but if they are in a competitive district, they have to deal with the system the way it is. I can’t pass judgment on that, a lot of my colleagues are in very difficult races,” he says. “I have some breathing room, so I have the opportunity to experiment, and I feel a responsibility to do this.”

But it’s proving tougher to do than he thought. Sarbanes has 400 small donors so far, three-quarters from Maryland. The average donation is $30. Yet it could work — even if members limit their grass-roots network to donors from their respective districts, that’s about 710,000 people according to the U.S. Census, thousands of them with the ability to give $5, $10 or $15.

Sarbanes’ Maryland district is largely white, with about 15 percent African-American, 8 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian. It’s considered a relatively affluent district, although incomes run the gamut. Sarbanes’ issues are the environment — specifically protecting the Chesapeake Bay — as well as environmental education. He’s also involved with public service and volunteerism, and sponsored the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Act, which allows college students with significant federal debt to have that debt forgiven if they perform 10 years of full-time public service work. He authored legislation that established VetCorps, a program within AmeriCorps that provides service opportunities to veterans and military families. And he’s worked to address shortages of healthcare professionals in the workplace.

If Sarbanes can’t reach his 1,000-donor goal, he’ll look into other ways to build a small donor network and tweak his model accordingly. His goal is to introduce campaign finance reform legislation that might include things like a tax credit for the first $50 of contributions to a congressional candidate. “Or a matching fund,” says Sarbanes, possibly funded by a tax on super PAC donations.

“I just want to see if this is possible, to raise money in a different way,” he says. Right now, says Sarbanes, a House member’s downtime is spent making calls to big donors or asking for money from PACs and industry groups. Instead, Sarbanes wants to figure out how to recruit grass-roots donors and what resonates with them. “The way money has to be raised now, it’s consuming us,” says Sarbanes. “It’s making it impossible for us to do the job we want to do.”

Eilene Zimmerman is a journalist based in San Diego whose work has been published in national magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, Glamour, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor,, CBS, Crain’s NY Business, Wired, Harper's, and others. She writes the "Career Couch" column monthly in the New York Times Sunday Business section.

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