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How Trump Wrecked the Conservative Money Machine

As corporate donations to the GOP decline, establishment Republicans are struggling to raise money, and extremists are raking in small donations. That just might give Democrats the edge in 2022.

Back in the days when the GOP was a traditional, pro-business party led by orthodox conservatives like Paul Ryan and John Boehner, House Republicans could always shake the corporate money tree for campaign cash. Then came Donald Trump, and now House Republicans are heading into the 2022 elections with a cash flow problem.

Trump firebombed many of the traditional sources of financial support for GOP congressional candidates. Many corporate PACs, according to Roll Call, are adhering to their pledge not to support any of the 147 congressional Republicans who voted to challenge the electoral vote count. The Koch network, which has been a major source of campaign support for House Republicans, has been at odds with Trump since 2016; the group recently announced that it is reevaluating support for lawmakers who had aided and abetted the Capitol riot. The Chamber of Commerce—once the embodiment of Main Street Republicanism, which spent more than $100 million on GOP candidates in the past decade—endorsed 23 House Democrats in the 2020 elections, in a major departure from recent tradition. And the chamber is now in turmoil, after Tom Donohue, the organization’s CEO for 24 years, resigned in February, having broken with Trump over his refusal to accept the election results.

Not all the GOP’s financial woes flow directly from the party’s embrace of a defrocked authoritarian president. The January death of billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the Daddy Warbucks of right-wing politics, eliminated a reliable source of super PAC cash. The negative publicity surrounding the lavish 2016 donations of Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah to Trump causes (including their investment in the controversial data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica) prompted the reclusive libertarians to back off from most political giving. And while the National Rifle Association is still endorsing candidates, the scandal-plagued organization is flirting with bankruptcy and is no longer a locked-and-loaded powerhouse in GOP congressional politics.

Political fundraising is always in flux, with new billionaires, new advocacy groups, and even new alliances of corporate executives entering the fray. Not long ago, the Democrats were in a financial hole until they fully harnessed online giving for congressional races. But the current GOP fiscal shortfall means that the party will have fewer resources heading into 2022—and less power to thwart extremists in Republican House primaries.

The GOP, to be sure, has an advantage heading into the 2022 House races. With Nancy Pelosi holding a tiny majority (which can be measured on the fingers of one hand), the Democrats will have to defy historical precedent to hold the House in 2022. Since World War II, the party holding the White House has lost House seats in every off-year congressional election except 1998 and 2002.

Of course, the contours of individual House races remain murky, because redistricting has not even begun, due to delays in tabulating the census. But Republicans are clearly struggling to fundraise. In March, Dan Conston, who heads the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC affiliated with the Republican House leadership, was warning donors, “The single biggest threat to Republicans taking back the Majority is insufficient candidate fundraising.” Last cycle, he said, House candidates failed to build robust online fundraising networks and instead expected the Republican Party to bail them out.

The problem for Republicans is that, when it comes to small donor fundraising, Trump is both the party’s savior and its albatross. The New York Times reported on Sunday that the 2020 Trump campaign ripped off contributors to the tune of $64 million by deceptively signing them up for multiple donations.*

These days, Trump has has made it all but impossible for establishment Republicans to raise money from small donors. (“No more money for RINOS,” he wrote in March. “They do nothing but hurt the Republican Party....”) And he even threatened the Republican National Committee with a cease-and-desist order for using his name and likeness in fundraising appeals—a Roy Cohn–style move unprecedented in political memory.

At the same time, Trump has opened up new avenues for fundraising—but only for Republicans willing to bow and scrape before him. He has a new super PAC, which he touted at CPAC in February with the same alacrity he once used to hawk Trump steaks—as the “one way to contribute to our efforts to elect ‘America First’ Republican conservatives.” It’s easy to imagine Trump funneling the money he raises into the coffers of some of the most militant and deranged Republicans. Meanwhile, extremism in defense of Trump is fundraising gold: Marjorie Taylor Greene, for instance, claims she raked in $1.9 million after the House voted to strip her of any committee assignments.

With the tottering GOP establishment struggling to raise money, QAnon acolytes like Greene could win primaries in key districts, especially if HR1—the far-reaching voting rights and campaign finance bill that passed the House—is signed into law. Buried within the bill are little-noticed provisions that would allow primary candidates to qualify for a $6-for-$1 match for small donations. If HR1 is passed (which would only be possible after Democrats nuke the Senate filibuster), it could give a major financial boost to wild-eyed, conspiracy-mongering Trump zealots, who may prove unelectable in suburban districts in the fall 2022 campaign.

Money is not destiny in congressional politics, and the Republicans may find a new MAGA-hat–wearing group of billionaires willing to replace the Koch network. In the two closest House races in 2020, the Democratic candidate outspent the Republican nominee more than two-to-one—and still lost. Moreover, prominent Democrats worry that their fundraising advantage could dissipate in 2022 without Trump in the White House to convince liberal donors to open their checkbooks.

Sophie Tucker—the twentieth-century singer known as the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas”—has often been credited (probably incorrectly) with the line, “I’ve been rich. I’ve been poor. And, believe me, rich is better.” That observation, no matter who originally said it, translates perfectly to contemporary Democrats and politics. Going into the 2022 campaign season, believe me, being the richer party is better.

* This article originally misstated the amount of money the Trump campaign had overcharged its donors.