After the chaos at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ) went to the Rotunda to help pick up the pieces, helping custodial staff sweep up some of the mess from the attack. Meanwhile, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) tried to distance himself from that same mess while defiantly defending the fiery speech he gave to that pro-Trump crowd before the riot.
It’d be hard to find two more different responses from members of Congress to that day. But three months later, the two lawmakers announced they’d raised the same remarkable amount of money for their campaigns—around $1 million—after a quarter in which the events of Jan. 6, and their aftermath, overshadowed the political terrain.
Coming off a 2020 election that cost an estimated $14.4 billion, donors might have been expected to sit on their wallets before giving to candidates for an election over 20 months away. The first quarter in the so-called “off year” is typically the quietest of the entire two-year election cycle.
Not so this year: Since federal filings were due last week, lawmakers and candidates have announced historic hauls. A handful of House Democrats and Republicans cleared $1 million, while some senators banked several million dollars.
Seemingly every recent election cycle has yielded bigger fundraising numbers than the last. But there’s never been anything like the Capitol insurrection and the subsequent second impeachment of Donald Trump, and the shock of January 2021 has clearly opened the political money spigot earlier than ever.
Fundraisers and operatives on both sides say that this turbulent year has underscored the stakes of political engagement for people nationwide. But Kim and Cawthorn show how different each side’s reasons for engagement have been: Liberals have largely kicked in cash with the aim of protecting their vulnerable majorities in Congress, while conservatives have sent millions to support those politicians who have been the staunchest defenders of Trump and the effort to contest the 2020 election results.
“After 2020 there was an open question of whether Democratic donors would stay engaged once Trump had exited,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who previously was executive director of the party’s House campaign arm. “This report answers that question.”
Meanwhile, the loudest conservative figures have always proved best at raising cash, said Republican strategist Liam Donovan, who pointed to the surge to figures like Cawthorn as a natural outgrowth of that trend.
“It should be no surprise that in an otherwise sleepy time of the election cycle, with traditional sources like business PACs largely on the sideline, that the most bombastic members are the ones with the gaudiest numbers,” said Donovan.
Kim, who was interviewed last week by The Daily Beast in the Capitol’s rotunda—where he was photographed after Jan. 6 cleaning up debris—said he was reluctant to talk fundraising in that hallowed space, but allowed that his $960,000 haul was “more than I expected.” Outside of the quarter’s closing days, which are packed with fundraising pitches, Kim’s biggest fundraising day of the period was Jan. 8, according to Federal Election Commission records. His campaign suspended solicitations for two weeks after Jan. 6, so the groundswell was likely sparked by his viral clean-up moment.
“People recognize it wasn’t just Jan. 6—it was the election results and the fact that I think Trump was stronger than a lot of people were necessarily expecting,” Kim said. “And Republicans made gains in the House in ways that, again, I think a lot of people weren’t necessarily expecting… It was a combination of those things that showed people that we’ve got a long road ahead of us.”
That early money will be important for Kim, one of just seven Democrats to represent a district Trump carried in 2020. But Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), who pulled in more than $1.2 million during the quarter, holds a safely blue Chicago-area seat.
Krishnamoorthi told The Daily Beast that his work on the House Oversight Committee, and a special panel overseeing the pandemic response, might have galvanized donations, but said the insurrection did, too. “Jan. 6 made it even more imperative to support people who really are supporting what we imagine to be the American dream,” said Krishnamoorthi, who was born in India. “And if I could humbly say so, I’m that racial, religious, ethnic minority kid, who is an immigrant with 29 letters in my name, and to a lot of people, that’s ‘We need more people like that.’”
Aside from exceptions like Krishnamoorthi, if there has been a pattern of cash flow from liberal donors, it’s been to the party’s most vulnerable incumbents who will make or break their chances to keep the majority in 2022. Twenty-five House Democrats on the GOP’s official target list netted over $500,000, while only nine Republicans on the Democratic target list cleared that bar—a discrepancy that some observers partially chalk up to the blanket suspension on political giving instituted by many companies after Jan. 6.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s official House campaign arm, raised $34 million, their best first quarter in an “off year” in history, though their GOP counterpart was only about $400,000 behind.
The GOP’s most notable fundraising leaders were conservative celebrities in safely red seats. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), the freshman who has said that “antifa” was behind Jan. 6 and has already moved to impeach President Joe Biden, raked in an astonishing $3.2 million. Greene, whose colleagues booted her from committee assignments for her record of inflammatory statements, explained the surge in a tweet: “I stood my ground and never wavered in my belief in #AmericaFirst policies and putting #PeopleOverPolitics!”
Other top GOP fundraisers, besides party leaders, were Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO)—a leader of the effort to object to the Electoral College results—and MAGA diehard Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Devin Nunes (R-CA), and Cawthorn.
Cawthorn’s fundraising messages on Facebook, where he is very active, offer a viewpoint into his appeal—heavy on culture-war touchstones like guns and kneeling during the national anthem, while emphasizing his support for Trump’s border wall and opposition to Democrats’ immigration policy. The Capitol attack and impeachment are not mentioned much—though they occurred during a Facebook political ad blackout—but Cawthorn often alludes to “attacks” from Democrats and the “Fake News.”
“I never betray my base, the people who elected me,” Cawthorn told The Daily Beast on Tuesday when asked about his fundraising. “If you have the back of the American people, they have your back.”
The Republican base may have rewarded figures like Cawthorn. Their opposites within the party—the members who voted to impeach Trump—found themselves heckled and censored by the GOP base. But they saw their own fundraising surge, too.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), the most high profile House lawmaker to impeach Trump, raised over $1.5 million—five times more than she raised in the first three months of 2020, an election year. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), perhaps the House GOP’s most vocal critic of the Trump movement, raised over $1 million, while Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA), who came forward with an account of Trump’s callous attitude toward the Capitol attack, raised $633,000, three times what she raised during the same period in 2019.
One of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI), raised over $500,000 this quarter—and he attributed that sum to “going into my first re-elect obviously not taking the easy path when it comes to re-election.” Meijer said he hadn’t done an exact breakdown of his sources of support, but said it was a “strong blend” of contributions from his west Michigan district, the state, and nationally. “I tend to think that voters value leaders who will exercise judgment and discretion,” he said.
The surge in campaign cash now, so far from Election Day 2022, is reflective of more than just a chaotic first stretch of 2021. Increasingly, campaign season has become constant, owing to the forces of polarization and the decline in fundraising regulations. And the growth of online, small-dollar fundraising through platforms like Democrats’ ActBlue and the GOP’s WinRed. “We’re in the unchartered territory of a perpetual campaign cycle that never ends,” said Kate Barton, director of campaign strategy for Grassroots Analytics, a digital fundraising firm that works for Democrats.
But even to seasoned operatives, there’s something clearly different about 2021. “Campaign fundraising and online fundraising has been exponentially growing cycle after cycle, but these first quarter numbers look like a natural growth, plus a supercharge,” said Ferguson, speaking about trends on the Democratic side. “There’s extra fuel in the tank because people are genuinely worried not just about Trump, but about what’s taken control of the Republican Party.”
—with reporting from Matt Fuller