In an otherwise favorable political climate, small-dollar donations have dropped for Republicans, making the party more reliant on megadonors to compete.
Online fund-raising has slowed across much of the Republican Party in recent months, an unusual pullback of small donors that has set off a mad rush among Republican political operatives to understand why — and reverse the sudden decline before it damages the party’s chances this fall.
Small-dollar donations typically increase as an election nears. But just the opposite has happened in recent months across a wide range of Republican entities, including every major party committee and former President Donald J. Trump’s political operation.
The total amount donated online fell by more than 12 percent across all federal Republican campaigns and committees in the second quarter compared with the first quarter, according to an analysis of federal records from WinRed, the main online Republican donation-processing portal.
More alarming for Republicans: Democratic contributions surged at the same time. Total federal donations on ActBlue, the Democratic counterpart, jumped by more than 21 percent.
The overall Democratic fund-raising edge online widened by $100 million from the last quarter of 2021 to the most recent three-month period, records show.
Exacerbating the fund-raising problems for Republicans is that Mr. Trump continues to be the party’s dominant fund-raiser and yet virtually none of the tens of millions of dollars he has raised has gone toward defeating Democrats. Instead, the money has funded his political team and retribution agenda against Republicans who have crossed him.
The current political climate favors Republicans as President Biden’s approval rating plumbs new lows. But nearly a dozen Republican strategists directly involved in fund-raising or overseeing campaigns have expressed concerns about how the fund-raising downturn might limit their party’s gains.
Working in the party’s favor is that Wall Street billionaires and other industry titans have cut seven- and eight-figure checks to Republican super PACs, offsetting some of the party’s small-dollar struggles, which some attributed to inflation and others to deceptive tactics that are turning off supporters over time.
“We’ve got to raise the money,” Senator Rick Scott of Florida, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said repeatedly on Fox News on Friday when pressed about the 2022 landscape. “We get the money, we win.”
For the Senate Republican committee, online fund-raising plunged by $6.7 million in the most recent quarter, to $11 million, from $17.7 million. Top Republican Senate candidates, even those whose fund-raising ticked up, are falling well behind their Democratic rivals in the cash race.
The money gap is so pronounced that Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, an endangered Democratic incumbent, raised more online last quarter — $12.3 million — than the combined WinRed quarterly hauls of the Republican Senate nominees or presumptive nominees in seven key contests: Georgia, Wisconsin, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Money alone does not win political races and, for years, Republicans have grown accustomed to trailing Democrats in online fund-raising. Democratic donors, for instance, poured more than $200 million into losing Senate races in Kentucky and South Carolina last cycle — and neither contest ended up even close.
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But the dip in online donations less than four months before Election Day — not just compared with Democrats but compared with the previous quarter — still has sent shock waves of anxiety across the Republican circles.
Eric Wilson, the director of the Center for Campaign Innovation, a conservative nonprofit focused on digital politics, commissioned a recent survey of Republican fund-raisers and found 70 percent falling short of expectations.
“You’ve got this perfect storm happening that has really put the brakes on grass-roots fund-raising,” Mr. Wilson said.
Some Republicans blamed inflation. Some blamed tech platforms. Others accused certain campaigns and committees — in particular the highly aggressive Trump operation — of simply overfishing and polluting a limited donor pool for everyone.
Mr. Trump’s PAC often sends out more than a dozen daily fund-raising emails and relentlessly searches for new donors via text messages and by renting conservative email lists. At times, the operation has leaned on deceptive and manipulative tactics. As one Republican said in Mr. Wilson’s survey, “Republicans are struggling to grow online fund-raising revenue because the big dogs are eating all of the food in the bowl.”
Two strategists involved in other down-ticket Republican races, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering the Trump team, said that the former president’s renting of donor lists has at times boxed out other 2022 candidates or forced them into less favorable terms when prospecting for new contributors.
Some Republicans have polled their donors to ask about why they were not giving and, according to people familiar with the results, inflation was the top answer. At a closed-door donor retreat last month, Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, also pinned the blame on inflation for the slowdown in small donations.
Still, inflation’s role is being hotly debated in digital circles because it has not seemingly affected Democratic donations, which jumped particularly in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade.
“They’ve got a lot of motivating factors,” Mr. Wilson said of Democrats.
Some Republican strategists said that their small-donor base is especially susceptible to price increases because their small donors are increasingly working class or rely on fixed incomes. A New York Times analysis of 2020 campaign contributions nationally showed that compared with Democrats, Republicans raised a far greater share of their money in ZIP codes where the median household income was less than $100,000, part of the evolving realignment between the two parties.
Still, when it comes to billionaire megadonors giving to super PACs, the Republican Party is easily outpacing the Democrats in 2022.
The main Senate Republican super PAC had nearly $40 million more cash on hand than its Democratic counterpart entering July. The House Republican super PAC’s cash edge was even bigger: nearly $70 million.
Kenneth C. Griffin, the chief executive of Citadel, a giant hedge fund, has poured nearly $50 million into various federal super PACs ahead of the 2022 election, including $10 million to the main Senate arm and $18.5 million into the House super PAC.
Stephen A. Schwarzman, the chairman of Blackstone, another hedge fund, has contributed a combined $20 million to the main House and Senate Republican super PAC this year. Timothy Mellon, the banking fortune heir, and Patrick R. Ryan, who became a billionaire through the insurance industry, each contributed $10 million to the main House G.O.P. super PAC.
And Miriam Adelson, a physician whose husband, Sheldon Adelson, was long one of the party’s most generous contributors until his death last year, made her first $5 million donation of the 2022 cycle this month.
Democrats have had fewer donors at that level. And some of the party’s biggest financiers in the past, notably Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, have been largely sitting on the sidelines of the 2022 super PAC wars.
While Mr. Bloomberg has often contributed closer to the election, he wrote an opinion essay this year warning that the Democratic Party was headed for a “wipeout,” barring a “course correction.” He has so far given only $1.5 million to a super PAC he uses for federal races; most of that amount went to a single Democratic primary in Georgia.
For Republicans, House candidate fund-raising has been a relative bright spot, as a growing number of candidates are raising significant funds online. As of this point in 2020, only 28 House Republican candidates and incumbents had raised more than $500,000 on WinRed, according to data compiled by the National Republican Congressional Committee. Now, that figure stands at 94.
But the House Republican leadership has not been immune to the overall slowdown. Representatives Kevin McCarthy of California and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the top two House Republicans, have each seen precipitous declines in WinRed donations. Fund-raising in their main accounts focused on smaller donors dropped by about $2 million combined, or roughly 25 percent, in the most recent quarter.
Andrew Fischer, Bea Malsky and Rachel Shorey contributed research.