WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives Republicans who tried to block Kevin McCarthy’s leadership bid last week share more than far-right political views. They also command powerful fundraising machines powered by small-dollar donations.
Their fundraising has a lot in common with the fundraising organizations of the Democratic Party’s far-left lawmakers who – like the anti-McCarthy block – rely on small donors more than their party fellows in Congress.
The 20 Republicans who cast leadership votes last week for protest candidates including U.S. Representatives Jim Jordan or Byron Donalds rather than McCarthy brought in more than a third of their campaign money from donors who gave them $200 or less during the midterm election cycle, their financial disclosures show.
That’s about twice the share reported by the rest of the Republican House conference.
The six Republicans who declined to support McCarthy even in the 15th and final speakership vote drew about 43% of their funding from small donors, a share on par with “The Squad,” a group of particularly progressive House Democrats.
The Squad, whose eight members include U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, relied on small donors for about 47% of their funds raised in the last cycle, compared to about 18% among the rest of the House Democrats.
The parallel shows how America’s rapid growth in online political fundraising has rewarded politicians whose views differ markedly from the mainline members of their parties who control party institutions, including traditional fundraising dinners packed with elites.
Many political observers see the increasing importance of small donors, who can partly offset the influence of deep-pocketed interest groups, as a plus for democracy.
But for some lawmakers their money has made it more profitable to buck leadership and to seek attention with social media feuds rather than toe the party line.
“It shows that the incentive structure has turned completely on its head,” said Douglas Heye, a Republican strategist who served as a top adviser to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Heye said Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential campaign signaled a turning point. Trump raised massive amounts of cash from small donors, thanks to a supply of controversial statements that drew him constant media attention.
In emails soliciting donor money on Friday, Representative Matt Gaetz, one of the six House Republicans that McCarthy failed to win over, said McCarthy was too moderate to stand up to Democrats and too entrenched in government to fight political corruption. “If you want to Drain the Swamp, you CANNOT put the biggest alligator in charge of the exercise!”
Gaetz, like other far-right Republicans as well as their arch enemies on the opposite end of the political spectrum, is a top-tier House fundraiser.
He pulled in more than $6 million for his midterm election campaign even though his district is solidly Republican, and he won in November by more than 30 points. Close to 60% of his funding came from small donors.
Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, who also declined to support McCarthy, raised more than $7 million, boosted by a viral digital ad in 2021 in which she proclaimed her right to carry a pistol in Congress. Both Gaetz and Boebert were in the top 15 House Republican campaigns ranked by funds raised.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Democrat Ocasio-Cortez pulled in more than $12 million, aided by a large online merchandising operation that sold T-shirts with logos like “Tax the Rich.”
Rick Tyler, a former top aide to former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, said he’s worried that social media and online fundraising encourages some candidates to focus more on toxic messaging than on building toward legislative victories.
“Unfortunately, to be popular on Twitter as a politician, you have to say crazy things,” he said.