But ActBlue isn’t going away — it’s just getting bigger. And despite several Republican efforts to create an “ActRed” of sorts, no such system has taken flight.
“Obviously that’s an advantage” for Democrats, said Rebecca Donatelli, the president of the firm Campaign Solutions, who recalls raising money online for the GOP New York gubernatorial candidate George Pataki in 1998. “I wish we had something a little more seamless like that, but we don’t.”
The fact that any Democrat can use ActBlue’s infrastructure also makes it easier for outsider candidates to generate money without support from party gatekeepers, said Michael Malbin, a political science professor and executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. “As long as you’re a Democrat, they’re not running ideological litmus tests,” he said of ActBlue.
The lure of online fundraising forces candidates to pay close attention to the policy priorities of the base, said Tim Lim, a consultant who has worked on digital advertising for Democratic presidential and congressional campaigns.
The downside: Some candidates catch fire, some don’t, and there is no real way to ensure that resources go to the most competitive races.
“It’s a mixed bag. We’ll see how we do this cycle,” Lim said.
For example, earlier this month, Andrew Janz, a California Democrat challenging Republican Rep. Devin Nunes for a House seat, touted the $4.3 million he raked in during the third quarter. “That’s quite a lot for a Solid R race,” tweeted Dave Wasserman, a FiveThirtyEight contributor and the House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
FiveThirtyEight recently gave Janz a 5 percent chance of winning the seat as of 11:45 a.m. Thursday, but his campaign has nonetheless ranked among the top recipients of dollars given to House candidates through ActBlue this election cycle. That could be because Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is a high-profile Trump ally — and a tempting target for angry grassroots Democratic donors, even if their money isn’t likely to bring him down.
Even Democrats have been shocked at the totals that some of the party’s candidates have been raking in. Earlier this month, McGrath’s campaign in Kentucky said she had raised $3.65 million during this year’s third quarter. A little more than $2 million came through ActBlue.
Alixandria Lapp, head of House Majority PAC, a super PAC working to ensure Democrats take control of the House, sounded a note of incredulity on Twitter. “How do you even spend that much money in KY-06?? Wow!” she wrote.
To be sure, Democrats continue to have their share of super PACs and billionaire benefactors (check under, for example: Bloomberg, Michael and Steyer, Tom). But Trent said the grassroots fundraising this cycle is showing candidates that there are alternatives to soliciting contributions from corporate PACs and big donors.
Hill, the ActBlue director, credits grassroots donor activity for pushing Democrats to prioritize special elections around the country last year, even though Democratic candidates weren’t always favored to win.
“The grassroots donors were there before other donors were there, before institutional donors were there, saying, ‘We want to contest these races,’” she said.
Wolfe, the West Virginia donor, doesn’t himself live in a competitive congressional district.
He has given about $230 — spread across nearly a hundred contributions — to Richard Ojeda, a Democrat running for an open House seat in a neighboring district rated as “likely Republican” by FiveThirtyEight.
Wolfe says he about fell over when Ojeda took the time to call him not once, but three times.
“He just wanted to say about how he was interested in representing the common man,” Wolfe said. Ojeda told Wolfe he wasn’t taking corporate dollars, something Wolfe liked. “For him to take his time on small donations to thank me — to me, that is a man of character,” Wolfe said.
Madalin Sammons, the Ojeda campaign’s communications director, confirmed that the candidate spends a few hours every week calling donors who give less than $100 — a sign of the importance the campaign places on such small contributions.
“It’s really hard for us to call everyone — we have a lot of small donors,” she said. “We try once a week to have him call anywhere between 25 and 100 people and thank them.”