Martha Adams, a longtime Republican voter, 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 has been responding to emails asking her to contribute to support President Trump’s agenda.
“He’s got a lot of roadblocks,” said Adams, 70, a retired speech pathologist from Austin, who said she has given a few hundred dollars this year – including $75 in May, two days after the appointment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. “It’s just to let him know we still care and that we’re still here.”
Prodded by emails from Trump urging them to fight “a weak and self-serving political class,” and angered by the sense that the president is being treated unfairly, thousands of his loyal backers are helping redefine a party that has long cultivated rich contributors – one small donation at a time.
In giving to support Trump, his backers are pouring tens of millions of dollars into the coffers of the Republican National Committee, which has raised more from small-dollar contributions at this point in the election cycle than the national party has collected in more than a decade.
The low-dollar donations are helping fuel a massive fundraising advantage for the RNC, which has pulled in nearly twice as much as its Democratic counterpart this year.
The GOP’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.
One key asset for the RNC: 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.
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 reelection campaign but currently gives one-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.
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,” Adams 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 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.”
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 his 2020 reelection effort, they said.
“The RNC’s top priority is to support and advance the president’s agenda,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement, adding that the fundraising surge shows that “voters are invested in our party and the president.”
The energy among small donors illustrates the extent to which Trump has translated the rock-ribbed support among his followers into a war chest that can help him overcome his political challenges.
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 reelection, 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.
This year, more than $40 million of the $68 million that the RNC raised in direct contributions by the end of August came in donations of $200 and less – nearly 60 percent of contributions, campaign finance data show.
That’s the most low-dollar money 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 small-dollar bonanza shows that the RNC has tapped into the “power of the masses,” said Brad Parscale, who helped build the online fundraising operation last year as the Trump campaign’s digital director. “You’re not beholden to large donors. Now you’re beholden to Americans, a large population of Americans.”
The national party is using its newfound resources to build out its ground operation, with 17 state directors already in place around the country. Under its rules, the RNC stays out of primary contests, but its organizers will help GOP congressional nominees in the upcoming midterms.
The committee recently 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.
For its part, the DNC is working to ramp up its own fundraising operation, hoping to do more to harness an energized grass-roots movement on the left. The party is expanding its finance team from three to 30 staffers, and officials noted that the committee had raised more money from low-dollar contributions by the end of August than it had at this point in the last two election cycles.
“We are confident that our team will raise the resources needed as we head into 2018 and beyond,” spokesman Michael Tyler said.
Still, the RNC’s success is alarming strategists such as Michael Whitney, who served as digital fundraising manager for Sanders’s presidential campaign.
“Who knows what will happen for the RNC in a post-Trump era?” Whitney said. “But for now, they have an incredible base of grass-roots donors who will keep donating money.”
Their response is largely driven by Trump himself, who has played up his grievances against Washington amid the flurry of controversies that have enveloped his administration.
“They say I’m isolated by lobbyists, corporations, grandstanding politicians, and Hollywood,” read a September RNC fundraising email signed by Trump. “GOOD! I don’t want them. All I ever want is the support and love from the AMERICAN PEOPLE who’ve been betrayed by a weak and self-serving political class.”
Samantha Osborne, the RNC’s chief digital officer, said the ability to use Trump’s name in fundraising “has been very, very beneficial to us.”
“His supporters know his voice and the way he communicates,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure we emulate that, keeping it authentic. His tweets do say a lot, and that’s what we try to mirror.”
Another strength of the Trump digital fundraising operation: He has drawn more ideologically diverse supporters than other small-donor programs on the right, Parscale said.
Trump “has such a big echo chamber and such a large megaphone, he grabbed a very wide spectrum of people,” he said.
That includes Chris Chavez, a 20-year-old who runs a small vending business in Scottsdale, Arizona, and grew up watching Trump on the reality show “The Apprentice” with his father. “I saw this businessman who had all of it – he had the American Dream I wish to have some day, and he was giving it up to better the country,” Chavez said.
Chavez made his first political donations ever to support Trump’s campaign last year and has contributed about $50 this year, including $3 to the RNC as part of a contest to meet the president at a rally in Arizona in August. He won and got to meet Trump backstage.
“My heart just stopped,” Chavez recalled. “I would donate to his 2020 campaign in a heartbeat.”
The Washington Post’s Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.