Peeling back the onion on RPV’s “Grassroots Challenge”

In 2012, nearly two million voters turned out to vote for Mitt Romney. In 2013, over one million voters turned out to vote for Ken Cuccinelli and Mark Obenshain. In 2014, over one million voters turned out to vote for Ed Gillespie.

With numbers like that, it’s hard to understand how the Republican Party of Virginia can call its recent fundraising a success. RPV sent out a self-congratulatory email today highlighting having raised $245,396 in three months during the “Grassroots Challenge.” In the three month period between March and May of 2015, RPV was able to solicit low dollar ($1000 or less) donations from a total of 1,044 donors. Those 1,044 donors donated $145,000, with one donation from RPV Finance Chair Pete Snyder kicking in a match of $50,000 and Second District Republican Chairman Curtis Colgate donating $50,000.

To put that in perspective, they got the equivalent of 0.998% of the voters who voted for Ed Gillespie, 1.03% of the voters who voted for Ken Cuccinelli and a minuscule 0.572% of voters who voted for Mitt Romney to donate. At that level, RPV could have raised more money if they simply asked each Republican leaving their polling place on election day for ten bucks. If you got $10 from 1 out of every 65 people who voted, you’d have raised more than the “Grassroots Challenge” did from low dollar donors.

There’s a fundamental difference between fundraising for a political party and fundraising for a political campaign. In a campaign you want to increase your donor base, especially from your district, because every dollar donated from a voter is a vote. No low dollar donor is going to invest in a campaign and then not show up on election day. Grassroots support is critical, because it helps win elections.

For political parties, it doesn’t matter how many donors you get to contribute, what matters is the size of the donation and the frequency. For political parties, grassroots donations don’t really help. Parties exist for one reason and one reason only – to get candidates elected. They don’t set policy, and even when they adopt party platforms, those are simply policy statements designed to appeal to voters and they never tie the hands of any elected official. What parties have always been is a vehicle for fundraising to support candidates across Virginia, especially those in tough races or in less affluent areas.  RPV can’t do that without money.

In a campaign, it’s better to have 10,000 $1 donors. For a political party, you want 1 $10,000 donor (and preferably a lot, lot more) – it takes far less effort and energy for the party to raise that kind of cash, as both Pete Snyder and Curtis Colgate have proven. Between the two of them, they raised almost half of RPV’s haul in this time period.

I give Pete and Curtis credit here – most big dollar donors have written off contributing to RPV, and for good reason. What’s the point? With the clear disconnect between RPV and our elected leaders, any big donor is going to go with either Speaker Howell or Major Leader Norment’s leadership PACs, not RPV, if they want to have an impact on most elections in Virginia. Or they give to an ideological super PAC that they can direct funds through. The results are obvious – even with a primary battle, Speaker Howell raised over half a million dollars in the same time period as RPV and Senator Norment is sitting on over $1 million cash-on-hand right now.

RPV also gave itself credit for raising $346,808 this year so far, without any “major party events such as a state-wide convention.” That’s great, but the Democrats raised twice that in the first quarter of the year alone – in the same time that RPV raised less than $100,000. We don’t have the second quarter fundraising reports from RPV or DPVA, so we can only go by the press release issued by RPV and press reports on DPVA’s fundraising numbers.

RPV’s press release does its best to spin the numbers into some kind of success, but it’s hard to fight the fundamental truth here – we are being out-raised by the Democrats at the party level. For those in public relations, RPV’s press release smacks of what they call “managing expectations.” In other words, setting the benchmark low so a successful outcome is inevitable.  $50,000 from the grassroots is a solid goal for a House of Delegates race, not for a statewide political party who shouldn’t even be wasting resources courting low dollar donors to begin with.

This is not to detract from the 1,044 individuals who donated – they were willing to invest their money in RPV, and RPV should be thankful that they chose to do so. Every little bit helps. At the same time, it’s disingenuous for anybody to point to a political party raising what is, by any rational measure, a small amount of money for a statewide organization in a single quarter and claiming some kind of moral victory, or that what they did was “…a strong indicator of the wide-spread support for the GOP in the Commonwealth of Virginia.” It wasn’t.  1,044 votes isn’t a strong indicator of support for a School Board candidate, let alone a political party (and donors here equals voters).  Reality is closer to what Pete Snyder noted in the press release itself, “…we have much more work ahead[.]” That is a statement all can agree on.

At the end of the day, RPV is lagging significantly behind in fundraising compared to the Democratic Party. It did not help us that we lost our biggest federal fundraiser, Eric Cantor, last year to party infighting and that our biggest overall fundraiser, Speaker Bill Howell, has been tied up in a viciously negative primary fight against an opponent who is being supported by significant numbers of RPV insiders and State Central Committee members.  When the party apparatus mucks around in elections against incumbents and makes itself anathema to big donors, both institutional and individual, we can’t raise money. And that’s the only real indicator here that matters.

Fundraising for a political party is strictly about numbers – anything else is smoke and mirrors. The higher the numbers, the better. RPV is lagging woefully behind our Democratic opponents, and without a fundamental change in our fundraising philosophy, our candidates are going to be fighting at a disadvantage, especially next year during the presidential. This isn’t Pete Snyder’s fault, or Bob Goodlatte’s, or Bill Howell’s or Tommy Norment’s.

We all know where the buck stops. Unfortunately for Republicans in Virginia, the bucks aren’t stopping with RPV.

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