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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.

Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Flickr


This story was originally published at Salon.

 Maryland congressman John Sarbanes, D-3rd, isn’t in a highly contested race this year — his opponent is Constitution Party candidate and bartender Eric Knowles. So he has decided to conduct an experiment. Could a congressional candidate in 2012 fund his campaign largely with contributions from small donors? And could he build a network of donors that could be mobilized at a moment’s notice, to pony up cash and fend off attacks by a super PAC?

In October, Sarbanes launched the Grassroots Donor project, a model of fundraising that mimics the Fair Elections Now Act, legislation proposed in 2011 that would give congressional candidates who assemble a large number of small donors access to a federally funded matching fund. The Fair Elections Now Act stands almost no chance of becoming law, and with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act made moot by the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, Sarbanes and his colleagues are increasingly frustrated.

Sarbanes’ Grassroots Donor effort is reminiscent of candidate Obama’s 2008 “army of small donors,” which accounted for more than $100 million in contributions. Sarbanes says, yes, “that financing approach Howard Dean pioneered and President Obama perfected serves as a model. But the success of that has only really been proven at the level of presidential campaigns or nationalized races. At the level of rank-and-file congressional races it’s still largely untested.” It’s also arguably most critical at the congressional level because that’s where candidates have the greatest vulnerability to super PAC and other big money attacks.

For example, late last month Karl Rove’s super PAC, Crossroads GPS, paid for television advertising targeting Nevada’s Democratic Senate candidate, Shelley Berkley. Crossroads spent $1.2 million on a package of ads airing in states with competitive races, including Montana, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota and Virginia. In response, Berkley sent a flurry of emails to supporters asking them to donate $5 or $10 to fight back. (Berkley’s campaign didn’t answer requests from Salon for the amount raised from those small donors.)

After Sarbanes raised $500,000 from traditional donors (individuals giving more than $100, up to the federal limit of $2,500) he locked the money away where it will remain inaccessible until he gets 1,000 people to give between $5 and $100 to his campaign. At this stage it’s less about the money raised from 1,000 donors and more about the number of people involved. “The premise is that if you can get a thousand people to contribute at the grass-roots level, you would have learned enough techniques for reaching them that you can get the next thousand and the next thousand,” says Sarbanes. “The goal of the first thousand is to break into a new way of raising funds, and then you keep going back. Over time the number of donors is large enough to help you fight back.” The congressman is looking for a proof-of-concept, to show his colleagues in the House that it’s possible to build a network of small donors, most of them your constituents, and wean yourself off PAC and other special interest money.

“The collective effect of our dependency on that money is seen when we go to make public policy. The institution leans more in the direction of special interests than in the direction of the public,” he says. For example, even though the public wants the tax on earnings from hedge funds increased, Congress hasn’t been able to do it because the financial industry has so much influence, says Sarbanes. He hasn’t taken any corporate or labor PAC money this election cycle, but acknowledges that most of his colleagues don’t have that luxury.

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