Liberal firebrand Alan Grayson boasted few legislative accomplishments during his single term in the House, but what the Florida Democrat lacked in policy chops he made up for in a willingness to give voice — loudly and frequently — to liberal concerns.
While his Republican-leaning constituents in central Florida may not have been enamored, he became the darling of left-leaning partisans across the country who were willing to use their checkbooks to ensure he had money to compete — both in his failed 2010 re-election bid and again this year, as he tries to recapture a House seat.
Mr. Grayson’s attacks on “right-wing paranoid crackpots” and forthright claim to be the spokesman for big-government solutions may do little to move legislation, but it works to bring in the cash. He has raised $1.2 million through ActBlue, a website that allows Democrats to browse candidates from all over the country and donate money to selected favorites.
Down the coast in Florida, freshman Rep. Allen B. West has tapped his own personal story — a black Republican and Iraq War veteran — and his own record of provocative rhetoric in a lucrative nationwide hunt for cash. Mr. West’s reliance on direct-mail appeals has made him a top-dollar man, outraising every other House member but Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican.
Using a playbook that seems the partisan mirror image of Mr. Grayson, Mrs. Bachmann raised the better part of $1 million in disclosed contributions during the last quarter alone, largely from people behind computer screens. Mrs. Bachmann’s partisan pull reaches so far, and the Internet cables tie followers to her so easily, that only 1 in 7 dollars she raised came from her state.
Thanks to the Internet, a revolution has occurred in the way local campaigns are financed. Outfits such as ActBlue on the left and Club for Growth on the right harness donations from partisans across the country, channeling them into campaigns where they are backing candidates who tend to be on the ideological wings of the two parties.
“If someone in Boston who doesn’t get to vote for conservatives wants to support one in South Carolina, he can adopt a representative,” said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth and a former congressman.
Using national partisan outfits, donors can earmark money directly to races they care about.
One for-profit, nonpartisan startup has asked the Federal Election Commission for permission to create an online tool that would allow people to search for their favored policy positions, find those who share those stances, then donate — with the company taking a cut of the contribution.
“All politics is local, but all causes are national. When there are those candidates that stick to principles, [who] understand what it means to stand for a cause, they’re able to tap into that cause’s national audience,” said David All, a technologist and founder of Slatecard, a now-defunct clearinghouse that sought to match Republican donors with candidates who shared their positions on sometimes-arcane issues.
Oftentimes, though, the biggest donations flowed not based on policy, but on overheated rhetoric, and the shift to national funding of local races seemed to set up a mechanism that rewarded extreme partisanship rather than constituent service.
Consider what was arguably Slatecard’s biggest success: the millions of dollars raised after a backbench lawmaker from South Carolina, Rep. Joe Wilson, was heard on national television shouting, “You lie,” back at the president during a joint address to Congress on health care reform.
Afterward, Mr. All recalled, other rank-and-file House members contacted him: “They’re like, ‘What can we yell on the floor to do this, how can we create this atmosphere?’” he said.
“The Joe Wilson thing, that was the last thing we did. There was certainly opportunity, but we were very principled and so we’d say no. Ultimately, all the money we raised just went for TV ads, and that can be a very unmotivating world to be in,” he said.