House Republicans’ newly created Benghazi Select Committee has attracted attention to their penchant for using investigations of the Obama administration as a fundraising tool. Most of the criticism, thus far, has concerned the National Republican Campaign Committee’s effort to collect email addresses from those who want to “become a Benghazi watchdog” despite committee chairman Trey Gowdy’s plea that they not do so.
It is no surprise, though, that the NRCC would use Benghazi to the Republican Party’s financial advantage. To understand just how lucrative these scandals can be, look no further than Rep. Darrell Issa. He has offered Republicans a clinic in the science of converting phony scandal into political cash.
For most of his career, Issa was a lackluster fundraiser. But through the first five quarters of the 2014 election cycle, his campaign committee has raised $2,573,258. This is an impressive haul, considering he has not faced significant opposition in more than a decade. The two Democrats vying to challenge him this year together have raised less than $50,000 combined. If Issa’s fundraising continues at its current pace, he will raise more this cycle than in his first four terms in Congress combined.
To understand Issa’s success, you need to see how he has stealthily used his official position as chairman of the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee to build one of the most successful and impressive direct mail operations in the House of Representatives. As chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee, Issa is outraising colleagues who occupy traditionally more lucrative posts including Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarlin and Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, whose committee is known as one of the easiest perches in Congress to attract campaign contributions from the fossil fuel and healthcare industries.
From his post as chairman, Issa has incessantly beat the drum of Benghazi and other scandals. According to a search of Nexis, the terms “Issa” and “Benghazi” have appeared together in Fox News segments 221 times since September 11, 2012. On Sean Hannity’s show a year ago he proclaimed, “The administration has made a claim that for classified reasons they change the story. We believe right now that may be the biggest lie of all.” Encouraged by Hannity, Issa then stated, “Lying to Congress is a crime,” stoking the conservative fantasy of a lawless White House.
Issa’s campaign website does not contain the standard political pictures of constituents and community events. Instead it contains a panoply of press clippings primarily focused the Congressman’s investigations of the White House and attacks on Obamacare. Currently the top two stories on DarrellIssa.com announce the subpoena of Secretary of State John Kerry and an article from Breitbart.com by his former aide and current consultant Kurt Bardella headlined “They Knew and They Lied About Benghazi.” (Breitbart.com notes that Bardella is a “former” aide to Issa but does not disclose that his company Endeavor Strategic Communications was on his campaign committee’s payroll as of his latest FEC filing.)
As a reward, the Republican grassroots have padded Issa’s coffers: The key ingredient to his miraculous fundraising turnaround has not been high-dollar gifts from PACs and lobbyists, but ordinary Republican voters thanking him, through their contributions, for being the president’s number one antagonist. Issa has nurtured this relationship with the GOP base by cultivating an enormous direct-marketing operation. Four of his top six campaign expenditures so far this year were to direct mail firms and his third largest expense was $70,684 paid to the Post Office.
Issa’s FEC reports further demonstrate the success of the program. In the first quarter of 2014, nearly 56 percent of his contributors listed their occupation as “retired”—an indicator, often, of a small donor reached through direct mailing. Previously, from the 2006 through 2010 cycle, the pharmaceutical industry was the largest source of donors to his campaigns. This change occurred only after Issa took over the Oversight Committee in 2011.
These donors are not simply responding to the letter they receive in the mail, but the image Issa has cultivated in the media. They see the congressman on Fox News portrayed as the leader in Congress investigating the scandals they feel have come to exemplify this White House and respond with open checkbooks.
Robert Spuhler, a retired community college president from Colorado, who gave $500 to Issa in 2013, explained to USA Today, “I contributed not so much because of him, but what the committee is working on. When you do things like that, you're going to be targeted by the other party."
A second donor, George Brandon, who also listed his occupation as retired on FEC forms, told the paper, "I want to see him survive and get to the truth on Benghazi, and I want to see the IRS destroyed.”
Pacific Political, a California firm contracted by Issa, brags on its website that it “has managed the growth of numerous direct mail campaigns, including that of Congressman Darrell Issa, whose house file… has grown from 2,600 donors to 26,000 donors.”
The front page of Pacific Political’s website features a sample direct mail piece whose visible text focuses on the purported attempts by “White House staff” to use “tax dollars to try and smear” Issa as a result of the scandals he is investigating.
Ultimately Issa’s small-dollar fundraising creates an incentive for him to make the wildest accusations possible and to continue investigations after their shelf lives have expired. The longer these inquisitions last, the more questions remain up in the air, the more time the media spend covering the alleged scandal, the more TV time Issa receives on Fox and the more money flows into his campaign coffers.
Accordingly after investigations by the Accountability Review Board, the Senate Intelligence Committee, the House Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Republicans have not given up investigating Benghazi. If the hearings end and the coverage diminishes, the money will stop rolling in.
Ari Rabin-Havt is host of The Agenda on SiriusXM Progress 127. Find him on twitter @AriRabinHavt.