Caleb Southern hadn’t donated to any political candidate until the 2018 election, when the Georgia Tech lecturer spent thousands of dollars sprinkling small donations to about 100 candidates in Georgia and across the country.
And as the 2020 election draws closer, Southern is ready to dig into his wallet again, confident that a couple of shekels here and there will buoy the campaigns of Democrats who are increasingly relying on these low-dollar donations.
“The Supreme Court has said that money is speech,” Southern said. “I don’t like that, but it is what it is. Large anonymous donations to politicians are effectively a form of legalized bribery. Small donations from citizens and voters like me are one way to counteract this.”
A surge of small-dollar donations helped Democrat Lucy McBath flip a U.S. House seat and Stacey Abrams nearly win the governor’s race last year. And federal campaign finance records show the boom in contributions continues, with Georgia Democrats far outpacing Republicans in grassroots fundraising.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found that roughly one-fifth of the contributions collected by Democratic candidates in the state’s most closely watched congressional races were for less than $200. By contrast, Republican candidates raised about 4% of their cash from small donors.
The GOP contenders were more dependent on another source of campaign cash. Roughly one-third of Republican donations came from political action committees, compared with about 10% of the donations to Democratic contenders.
The analysis involved contributions reported by the candidates during the first three months of the year, and it included the U.S. Senate race and the contests for the 6th and 7th congressional districts, which span north Atlanta’s suburbs and will be heavily contested by both parties.
Those figures will change as more candidates join the race. No Democrat had filed paperwork to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue before the first fundraising deadline, and no prominent Republican had formally entered the race for the 7th District until April.
Still, they provide a snapshot of a broader trend that’s reshaping elections across the nation.
Democrats have raced to harness grassroots fundraising thanks to the explosion of donations from ActBlue, an online fundraising service that’s helped Democratic candidates collect more than $3 billion from small donors across the country.
And Republican Party officials have scrambled to create their own online fundraising platform, though some donors are already parsing out their contributions in smaller amounts.
“I’m just trying to protect my own ideals and make sure that the people that are conservative and aren’t going to have government take over the country” are elected, said Robert Falanga, an Alpharetta attorney who signed on to donate $100 a month to Perdue.
The small-dollar dynamic is already playing a big role in the White House race.
About one-third of the funding for Democratic presidential candidates in the first quarter came from small donors, according to the Center for Public Integrity, while President Donald Trump collected about 13% of his campaign cash from supporters who gave less than $200.
At the top of the Democratic heap is Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who raised about three-quarters of his total from small donors. And nearly two-thirds of contributions to Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., were less than $200.
And the party is trying to emphasize small-dollar donations like never before by creating a grassroots fundraising requirement as a way to qualify for debates sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee later this year.
In Georgia, Abrams demonstrated the power of small-dollar donations in last year’s race for governor. Her small-money fundraising machine collected more than $8.3 million from people across the country who gave her less than $100 — about one-third of her total fundraising.
The candidates in next year’s races have learned that lesson. McBath, who honed a national reputation as a gun control advocate, raised about 31% of her campaign haul in last year’s race from grassroots donors. This year, nearly one-quarter of her $480,000 is from small donors.
Pauline Ho Bynum, a real estate agent from the Boston area, was so taken by 7th District candidate Carolyn Bourdeaux after hearing her speak last year that she opted to host a fundraiser for her. As the Democrat prepares for another run, Bynum chipped in an additional $100 to her campaign in February.
“She has an amazing resume,” Bynum said of Bourdeaux, who raised about one-tenth of her cash from these smaller donations. “The fact of the matter is this is someone who really is committed to public service.”
‘Seat at the table’
The same goes for Nabila Islam, a first-time candidate in the 7th District who has leaned on family and friends from Gwinnett County to help finance her race to succeed Republican Rob Woodall, who is retiring after five terms. Some $23,000 of her $100,000 take came from small donors.
Incumbents in safer Georgia seats got off to a slower start: Several Republicans and Democrats reported minimal fundraising, or none at all. An exception is U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, who collected about $420,000 — with two-thirds of that sum coming from small-dollar donations.
The art of small-dollar fundraising isn’t lost on Georgia Republicans. Over the past two election cycles, Republican Karen Handel raised one-third of her campaign war chest from smaller donors as she defeated Jon Ossoff in a 2017 special election and lost to McBath last year.
So far in this year’s contest, her fundraising team’s attention was on bigger fish. She’s collected about 5% of her contributions from smaller donors — and an additional 20% from political action committees, many of them aligned with conservative groups.
Perdue, too, has not yet tapped many smaller donors. Only about 4% of his donations are less than $200. But he raised about $385,000 — nearly half of his total take — from political action committees.
As for Southern, he now considers himself hooked on small-dollar donations. He keeps a lengthy spreadsheet of candidates and his donations, and he tries to give to contenders at strategic moments.
“I’m voting with my dollars,” he said. “It’s what our system should be like, and it gives us a seat at the table, too.”
Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.
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