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.
The transformation of campaign financing through technology meant that those slower to embrace high-tech were at a disadvantage.
In recent years, Democrats generally have been faster to adopt the technology, with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's failed 2004 presidential campaign paving the way with an impressive Internet operation, showing that online donations could make a campaign competitive. Mr. Dean had programmers on staff who were able to keep his operation up to date.
Republicans have been slower, often turning to long-standing companies and buying off-the-shelf software that doesn't meet their needs.
"They'll buy what's the hottest and latest without a fundamental understanding of how it's used," said Moshe Starkman, a Republican technology consultant who has created software to help run many aspects of political organizing and get-out-the-vote operations.
Indeed, there are indications that Republicans were left in the lurch as Democrats pioneered new strategies, culminating in the 2008 Obama campaign, which shattered records for Internet fundraising and online networking, using data to fine-tune its pitches.
But technology is used as leverage to challenge the establishment, and the left's advantage is only temporary, said Nicco A. Mele, a Harvard lecturer on technology and politics who was webmaster for the Dean campaign.
"Dems have a definite tech advantage, but it was borne out of desperation. They were most desperate when the Internet" came into common use during the years out of power under President George W. Bush, he said.
Party committees historically have done two main things. One was to direct funds from wealthy donors to elections on which its officials chose to focus — a role small donors are taking back. The other is the vetting of candidates, where the focus is on whether they could win.
But Mr. Mele said grass-roots donors are looking for ideological purity as much as for electability.
"That's how you get people like Romney. And that leaves him open to people like Ron Paul," Mr. Mele said, pointing to the upstart libertarian-leaning congressman from Texas and presidential candidate who pioneered the "money bomb," where thousands of people log on to donate on a specific day.
Starting a wave
It also may not be a coincidence that online fundraising came of age after Mr. Dean's 2004 race — and the three congressional elections since then have been national "wave" elections, with major upheavals and party shifts in Congress.
In 2010, it was the tea party that rode the wave, though many of the movement's favored candidates, such as Mr. West, still rely heavily on direct-mail fundraising — a tool that Republicans pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s.
With many political mail operations, it is not unusual for 90 percent of a person's donation to go simply to the cost of printing and stamping solicitations. That has the effect of boosting out-of-state numbers, without commensurate ability of candidates to spend on advertising.
For Mr. West, although his fundraising has outpaced all but two members of the House thanks in large part to his postal mail list, the majority of his expenditures have gone right back to paying for those mail solicitations, records show.
But like with those using the Internet to take away control from the central party committee by choosing where to direct their funds, Mr. West always has positioned himself as an outsider taking on entrenched forces.
Data show that while Democrats have turned a technological advantage into cash, raising more from out-of-state donors for its incumbents and open-seat candidates, tea party Republicans have funded many of their party-bucking, establishment-scorning challengers by crowdsourcing local elections to a national audience. Republican challengers have received far more out-of-state cash than Democrats.
The out-of-state technique is still employed by only a small portion of candidates, but it is growing markedly: The number of candidates who have received less than 40 percent of their individual contributions from home-state residents increased from 48 in 1980 to 101 so far this election year, FEC records show.
Adopting a representative "gives people a sense of empowerment. The key to Internet success is giving users a sense of ownership," Mr. Starkman said.
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