In mid-March, as infection rates in his home state grew, Devin Nunes, Republican congressman from California, tweeted to his almost million followers a Breitbart article titled “Democrats Pushed Impeachment While Coronavirus Spread.” Nunes has exploited President Trump’s impeachment at every opportunity, often for his personal benefit. In February, shortly after Trump’s acquittal by the US Senate, he sent an e-mail addressed to his “top supporters.” It read: “GET THE EXCLUSIVE IMPEACHMENT SCOREBOARD T-SHIRT!” When recipients clicked the accompanying graphic of a white T-shirt stamped “IMPEACHMENT: DONALD TRUMP 01, DEEP STATE 00,” they landed on a page offering the shirt for any amount between $25 and $2,800. Since this purchase was a federal contribution to the Nunes campaign, donors were instructed to state their employment status. A prominent red-framed box with a checkable “I’m retired” in bolded letters signposted the target demographic.
With the exception of Trump, few in public office are as adept at tickling the ids and wallets of conservative retirees as the forty-six-year-old Nunes. His contributors gush over his talents. “Thoughtful and direct,” one woman in Michigan who gave $585 in dribs and drabs over the last two months of 2019 told me. “A smart man, he looks for the truth,” said a Pennsylvania retiree who donated $75 during the same period. Since 2017, Nunes’s campaign has raised more than $20 million, about half from small donors. Nunes is a master of multiplatform marketing. Whether delivered from a committee dais, Fox News segment, self-published webzine, podcast, or at the front of a press conference, his sales pitch is elemental in its simplicity and limitless in its permutations: conservatives are under attack. “We must fight back” read the subject line of a recent Nunes e-mail. Donate.
Nunes offers an inexhaustible inventory of conspiracy theories. He stars in them as the heroic congressman ferreting out a truth that evil Democrats wish to bury. As soon as one conspiracy theory is debunked, a new one appears. The Obama administration hid an incriminating stash of Osama bin Laden papers, for instance. Witnesses to the murder of a US ambassador in Benghazi were intimidated. Ukraine tried to interfere in the 2016 election against Trump. Nunes’s tales often feature the so-called Deep State, an amorphous enemy that includes government officials inclined to constrain Trump with facts or legal statutes.
As the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Nunes helped drive the GOP response to both the Mueller and impeachment investigations. During the hearings he and his colleagues unleashed a slew of procedural complaints, creating a narrative of injustice that became ready fodder for fundraising pitches. Most of their ire focused on committee chairman Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, whom they accused of running an unfair process and of “outlandish attacks” against Trump.
“Adam Schiff keeps blocking House Conservatives from questioning witnesses,” stated a Nunes campaign Facebook ad that ran during the hearings, pitched primarily at men sixty-five and over. “They can’t stop Devin’s hunt for the truth. Stand with Devin Nunes NOW.”
Conservative victimhood has been kind to Nunes; by the end of 2019, his campaign had more than $7 million in the bank, after spending $11.6 million a year earlier to win reelection. Other members of Congress peddle merchandise like T-shirts and coffee mugs, but no one else exploits the courts as part of their fundraising strategy like Nunes. (Trump is now suing The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN, and other GOP lawmakers may yet follow his lawsuit strategy.) Last year, Nunes filed six lawsuits against media companies—both traditional and social—as well as parody Twitter accounts like Devin Nunes’s Cow (@DevinCow), accusing them of defamation. In December, Nunes turned his lawsuit against CNN into a Facebook ad campaign to collect donors. “CNN will do anything to destroy Devin Nunes,” one ad warned. “Stand with Devin against the fake news media.”
Outrage at the media, with journalists as unwitting (or witless) straight men, is a surefire GOP money-raiser. Delegitimizing reporters also serves as a prophylactic against future scandals they may unearth. Fundraising e-mails from Jim Jordan, Republican congressman from Ohio, highlighted the “fake news about conservative members of the judiciary”; Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, warned supporters in Facebook ads that “Socialist Democrats and the fake news media will do anything to stop President Trump.” Soon after Arizona Republican senator Martha McSally’s unprovoked “liberal hack” attack, on a CNN reporter, the senator offered T-shirts commemorating the event for sale and starred in a joint Nunes fundraising e-mail. “My friend, Senator Martha McSally has also been baselessly attacked by the radical left and fake news media,” it read.
Nunes has spent about half a million dollars on Facebook advertising since 2018, according to the Facebook Ad Library. It’s paying off. Just in December, as he was making headlines battling CNN in the courts, the Nunes campaign raked in nearly $300,000 in contributions from retirees, almost half of what he raised that month.
For those not clued into conservative grievance culture, the behavior of Nunes and his Republican colleagues during the impeachment hearings in the House struck an odd chord. They weren’t working to convince undecided Americans, much less Democratic lawmakers, of Trump’s innocence; the evidence—and the White House’s efforts to limit witnesses and documents—indicated that the president’s guilt was obvious and overwhelming. Instead of grappling with the facts or, as a matter of congressional oversight, demanding transparency from the White House, Republicans repeated a steady stream of talking points, often at high volume. The outdoor voice signaled determination. Like the attacks on the journalists, it smacked of performative fundraising.
Performative fundraising is a prism through which to understand not only the GOP activity during the impeachment hearings but also the Republicans’ Benghazi hearings and the endless posturing around repealing Obamacare. It’s not about achieving policy goals as much as energizing the base and separating them from their cash. Performative fundraising favors simplistic narratives, melodramatic rhetoric, an implacable enemy, and rote phrases to crowd out reasoned debate. Snippets of the act become fundraising pitches. Facebook microtargeting and e-mail lists ensure that pitches reach conservative retirees, especially in sunbelt states like Florida, California, and Texas.
Where the money winds up is increasingly suspect, thanks to a deliberately hobbled regulatory system. Today, it’s perfectly legal for officeholders to spend contributor money on an opulent lifestyle as long as it’s called fundraising. It’s also legal for unaffiliated campaign consultants to raise contributions in the name of a candidate or cause and then pocket the money for themselves.
Nunes is a fundraising innovator, but he’s no pioneer. That distinction belongs to Richard Viguerie, the “funding father of the conservative movement.” As a conservative activist in 1965, Viguerie discovered that the House clerk’s office possessed the names and addresses of campaign donors who gave more than $50 to federal candidates. He recognized the value of those names and quickly cobbled together 12,500 conservative donors from Barry Goldwater’s failed presidential bid. Within a year, his list had grown to 125,000 names. Eventually it would exceed five million. If only a small percentage of recipients sent $10, a single mailer could raise upwards of $10 million.
In his heyday, Viguerie mobilized his army of voters to lobby Congress and elect conservative politicians. But when it came to fundraising, he told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, “people are motivated by anger and fear much more so than positive emotions.” Viguerie stoked conservative anger into cash with hyperbolic mailers like “babies are being harvested and sold on the black market by Planned Parenthood.” The political world took notice. Then Roger Ailes, the founder and CEO of Fox News, amped the grievance on television and made billions of dollars for Rupert Murdoch.
In this kind of fundraising the framing is inevitably negative and recursive, explained Rick Wilson, a longtime GOP consultant and now prominent anti-Trumper. “Your misery is legitimate, your fear is legitimate; it’s the culture of grievance,” he told me. “We are under attack because we are under attack.”
In the 1970s the New York attorney general forced Viguerie’s company to reduce the fee it charged charities from as much as 75 percent of every dollar raised to 35 percent. In the 1990s Viguerie formed a coalition of retirement groups with names like United Seniors and the 60 Plus Association. When only about 7 percent of the $1.3 million raised stayed with the organization, postal authorities investigated, but since the money went to vendors and postage it wasn’t illegal.
Even though it could be lucrative, direct mail was neither cheap nor fast. A postal worker had to physically deliver the mail to the potential donor who then needed to write a check and put it back in the mail. A single piece of mail might cost between $1 and $1.25 to produce. One had to pay for postage, even if, like Viguerie, one got the benefit of postal subsidies through nonprofit partners.
The Internet and the ubiquity of online payment systems have removed these hurdles. Lists these days are bigger, more valuable, and have a shorter half-life than those Viguerie mounted. It’s “burn and churn,” as donors are tapped out and new ones gathered. A sparkling donor list like one from a presidential campaign loses luster over time, winding its way down in value as it’s sold repeatedly, until folks who signed up for Romney-Ryan in 2012 are e-mail bombed by a long-shot Maryland congressional candidate six years later.
In the quest to build lists, there are no end of dodges to persuade people to give their contact information. Finding them is easy thanks to Facebook. Advertising does the rest. “Rep. Jim Jordan is leading the fight against the Dems’ Impeachment Witch Hunt! Thank him NOW,” requested the conservative advocacy group Freedom Works in a Facebook advertisement. “Stand with President Trump Against Impeachment” and sign the petition. Or “Wish Devin Nunes a Happy Birthday” by giving him your name, e-mail, and cellphone. Many elderly consumers fail to grasp that their personal information, which they bestow freely, has monetary value for the people who build and sell lists. It’s a commodity. A high-quality list can fetch as much as $15 per name from campaigns looking for contributors.
Trump has assembled the most extensive small-donor list ever created by a GOP presidential candidate. It’s a significant source of his power. Previous occupants of the Oval Office used the bully pulpit for policy and fundraised on the side. But Trump has merged the two, creating a fundraising pulpit. The ceaseless marketing pleas to aid the president against his evil opponents keeps his voters invested, literally. It enables the campaign to test messages and plan for turnout. Trump’s hold over his army of conservative retirees also permits him to control the GOP to an extent previous presidents only dreamed of. If those further down the food chain want to eat, they must follow Trump’s lead. It behooves Republican officeholders to fall in line. It’s not lost on anyone in the campaign world that Trump can monetize his donor list at will.
The immediacy of e-mail allows fundraising pitches to ride hot on the news or blast out a link to the latest Fox News appearance. The financial entreaties are honed through so-called A/B testing, where a subset of a list is tested to see which message hits the right buttons. All kinds of information can be gleaned from the recipient. Do they open the e-mail? How quickly? Do they follow the links? And most importantly, do they donate? Since consumers are accustomed to buying online with PayPal or a credit card, the wait for a return is now measured in minutes not weeks. Even if a fundraising e-mail only returns 2 percent, the cost per piece is mere pennies. The good lists deliver quite a bit more.
Democrats have their own thriving small-donor operations. Democratic House impeachment managers who presented the case against the president before the Senate have also used their viral moments to raise money. In their campaigns, Democrats can be just as oppositional as Republicans. “We live in Donald Trump’s America, that’s all that works,” bemoaned one Democratic campaign consultant, who frets about the polarized world that awaits his young children.
There are some crucial differences, however. The donor demographic for Democrats is broader and skews younger than that of Republicans. The pitches are often, although not always, more wide-ranging than the sky-is-falling-send-ten-dollars-now approach. While Democratic legislative leaders are not above, for example, forcing a bad vote onto Republicans for electoral purposes, their entire governance strategy is not predicated on what activates their base and shakes free small donations, as is the playbook of Trump’s GOP.
Elise Stefanik, a Republican congresswoman for North Country, New York, was one of the biggest winners in the House’s small-donor impeachment sweepstakes. Stefanik pulled in over $3.2 million in the last quarter of 2019, more than committee chairman Schiff. As the only Republican woman on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Stefanik contributed a desperately needed dose of gender diversity to the president’s congressional defense team. Her vociferous support of Trump, however, caught some by surprise. Until the impeachment hearings, Stefanik, who is thirty-five, had a reputation for bipartisanship and party-line independence. Her mentor was Paul Ryan, whom Trump praised and then mercilessly belittled. Stefanik’s recent arc captures the fundraising benefits of a full embrace of the president.
Stefanik came to the GOP at an early age. By fourteen she was volunteering for the Republican State Committee in Albany, just north of her hometown. After graduating from Harvard, Stefanik went to work for the Bush administration and then as a staffer on the Romney-Ryan presidential campaign. In 2014 a Democratic retirement left an open seat in the Adirondacks, where Stefanik’s parents had a vacation home. She decamped from Washington, D.C., and carpetbagged her way into the district. Karl Rove plowed nearly $800,000 into the race to clear a path for her in the Republican primary. When she won her election, Stefanik became the youngest congresswoman in history, a title she lost to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic congresswoman and a fellow New Yorker, four years later.
As a millennial, Stefanik held heterodox views. She believed climate change was real. She publicly agonized over her Obamacare vote before voting to kill the program in 2017. In her first term, Stefanik focused on local issues affecting her district. In the GOP presidential primary, Stefanik refused to endorse any candidate. When it came time for Trump’s convention, she was noticeably absent. After Trump won the 2016 election, however, Stefanik took local party activists to his inauguration.
In January 2017 Stefanik was appointed to the Intelligence Committee but continued to buck her party. She voted against the GOP tax bill, as it removed deductions from high-tax states like New York. Stefanik also voted against defunding the EPA and favored criminal background checks for gun purchases. A year later, the Koch-funded Americans for Limited Government denounced her for supporting the firing of scandal-prone EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Then Trump traveled to Stefanik’s district to visit Fort Drum, the largest employer in upstate New York, to sign a $717 billion defense bill. The congresswoman, who sits on the Armed Services Committee, proudly touted the visit in a press release.
In March 2019 Stefanik joined her fellow Republican Intelligence Committee members on a letter calling for Schiff to resign his chairmanship over his handling of the Mueller investigation. Immediately after the letter, she started gathering names of potential donors with a Facebook ad going after Schiff. “[He] has lost the confidence of his colleagues to serve as Chair of Intel. He should resign. If you agree—ADD YOUR NAME.” Her campaign experimented with sending the ad to different age groups and locations around the country. Stefanik continued to hunt for names with anti-Mueller and anti-impeachment ads on Facebook through the summer and fall. In early October she upped the ante and publicly demanded the censure of Schiff. Not to be outdone, President Trump called for Schiff’s arrest for treason.
By the time the first impeachment hearing rolled around, Stefanik was ready. Two and a half hours after the first hearing, Stefanik sent out a fundraising e-mail. Its subject line read “WATCH: I EXPOSED ADAM SCHIFF,” and it included links to clips of her questioning witnesses. At the next hearing, Stefanik and Jim Jordan pointedly sparred with Schiff over procedural points of order. A few hours after the hearing concluded, another e-mail and link. “Today millions of Americans tuned into the second public impeachment hearing,” it read. “It started off with Adam Schiff BLOCKING me from using the time yielded to me by Devin Nunes…. Donate here to help fight for facts instead of these partisan games.”
As Stefanik’s profile grew through the hearings, her campaign turned to Facebook to advertise for contributions outside her district. Her leading Facebook advertisement in November read:
My opponent is raising money from the Hollywood liberals, like Chrissy Teigen, calling me ‘trash.’ I’m just focusing on the TRUTH & FACTS in impeachment hearings. But they can’t handle the truth! DONATE NOW to help us fight back against the Far-Left’s unhinged Hollywood machine!
According to the Facebook Ad Library, one of Stefanik’s target audiences for the ad were female retirees in California, Texas, and Florida. She brought in nearly $1.9 million in the fourth quarter from donors outside New York, some $675,000 more than she had raised from them in the previous nine months.
The downside for Stefanik and other Republican Trump supporters is that the president also engenders passionate opposition. Schiff is sitting on a campaign fund of more than $8 million. All it took was one tweet from a Democratic influencer on Twitter urging supporters to follow Tedra Cobb, the Democratic opponent Stefanik trounced in 2018, for the money to start rolling in. Cobb raised $2 million toward the 2020 election during the impeachment hearings, drawn from 63,000 people across the country. The average donation was $27.50.
By January, Stefanik was sending fundraising appeals with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s face altered as if on a horror movie poster. Trump retweeted the image, amplifying Stefanik’s national profile. When The Washington Post called her out, it became another opportunity to troll for dollars. On Twitter, she thanked the Post for promoting her pitch, with the help of four winged banknote emojis. “💸💸💸💸 flying in!” she tweeted happily.
The legal test for campaign expenditures is straightforward. Legislators are prohibited by law from spending their campaign cash on themselves, for example, to pay for a country club membership or a vacation to Disney World. If a candidate or officeholder would make the expenditure irrespective of their political situation, it’s considered a “personal use,” and is forbidden as a way to prevent contributors from bribing politicians. A gigantic loophole exists, however, in the personal-use prohibition in the form of leadership political action committees.
The ostensible purpose of a leadership PAC is to collect money to donate to fellow legislators. Stefanik has one. It’s called E-PAC, and its stated purpose is to elect GOP women to Congress. Ninety-four percent of GOP House members have leadership PACs (78 percent of Democrats do, according to Issue One, a nonprofit advocate for campaign finance reform). In addition to country club memberships and Disney vacations, leadership PACs have paid for legislators to attend Broadway shows, go to the Super Bowl, and stay in luxury resorts, all in the name of “fundraising.” Public servants living large off their contributors is the result of a dysfunctional regulatory system and a Congress that likes the status quo too much to fix it.
Devin Nunes has a leadership PAC called New PAC that gets about half of its contributions from small donors, according to the campaign watchdog Open Secrets. In the 2018 cycle, Nunes disbursed a little more than 35 percent to fellow Republicans. Since 2013, he has spent PAC money on a tight-knit group of campaign consultants and “fundraising” expenses that included Celtics tickets ($14,638), winery tours ($5,000), and Las Vegas junkets ($42,741), according to McClatchy.
In July 2018, when a coalition of government-watchdog groups filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission over New PAC spending $5,518 on private jets, FEC staff deemed the amount unworthy of an enforcement action. As of this writing, the commission has not had a quorum since September 2019. Without one, it is unable to authorize even preliminary investigations. The law itself is easy to fix: simply add a “personal use” restriction to leadership PACs. A bipartisan bill exists but likely faces a hostile reception from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who already killed a Democratic bill that reforms the FEC and breaks the deadlock. The status quo works well for him.
This permissiveness also allows deceptive PACs to thrive. Today, anyone can create a super PAC or political action committee, raise contributions on behalf of a candidate or cause, and then keep most of the money for themselves. It’s perfectly legal. They don’t even have to call it fundraising. These scam PACs raise money to support a candidate or cause, but most of the contributions go to the people or entities behind the PAC. They escape accountability in part because they are not officially affiliated with the candidate for whom they solicit money.
Scam PACs appear to be more prevalent on the right, although, since the FEC does not track them and they’re not precisely defined, it’s hard to calculate their number and composition. Consultants on both the left and the right run scam PACs. There are around seven thousand active political committees registered with the FEC. According to a Politico story last December, hundreds of unaffiliated pro-Trump PACs have raised more than $46 million, mostly from small donors.
A number of folks have made a living doing this. David Bossie is one of them. A longtime GOP activist and former deputy Trump campaign director, Bossie’s group, the Presidential Coalition, collected more than $18 million in 2017 and 2018 promising to support conservative candidates. Of the $15.4 million the group spent, only about $425,000 went to the candidates. The rest went to consultants and to buy books coauthored by Bossie, according to an exposé by the Campaign Legal Center and Axios. The report resulted in a rare rebuke by the Trump campaign. Bossie endured a few months of exile, including from his perch as a commentator on Fox News, before Trump welcomed him back into the fold after a private meeting.
A sinister subset of the scam-PAC world collects contributions with aggressive telemarketing. Politico and ProPublica detailed how a PAC called the Conservative Majority Fund ran a fundraising campaign in 2012 promising donors it would hire investigators to prove that Barack Obama was ineligible to be president because he was not a US citizen. The pitch collected $2.8 million from 30,000 donors in just five months. The people behind the PAC had a history of raising money and keeping 80 to 90 percent of it. There is no indication funds were spent on private investigators.
A Reuters investigation revealed a network of fundraisers that created PACs to collect money ostensibly on behalf of state troopers, firemen, injured veterans, and to fight breast cancer. Drug addicts and prisoners on work release staffed their call centers. Little, if any, of the money gathered went to the causes for which it was raised. Donors who learned of the scam from reporters were justifiably outraged.
Lee Goodman, a former FEC commissioner and Republican, told Reuters, “Federal election laws were designed to prevent corruption, not to protect consumers.”
On the day of his inauguration, Trump broke with precedent and filed for reelection. The message was clear: governing and campaigning would become indistinguishable. The consequences of that decision extend beyond a widening national polarization, as the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated.
Impeachment showed that the permanent campaign was about more than fundraising. An activated Republican base discouraged GOP senators who might have broken independent by raising the specter of primary challenges. Approaching the impeachment hearings as one long grievance allowed Nunes and his colleagues to subvert the hearings if not the outcome. Yet fundraising was always present.
Treating governance as a campaign performance has made it difficult to unify the country in confronting a pandemic. Those who have been fed a steady diet of “the media is fake news” and “Democrats want to destroy the country” have been slow to accept the grave danger that the coronavirus presents. The inability of leaders like Nunes and Trump to transition away from campaign performance slowed their response to the virus—and has especially imperiled their retiree followers.
The day after the Senate acquitted Trump, the president gave a rambling celebratory speech in the East Room of the White House before a crowded room of congressional allies, Fox News celebrities, and other supporters. He made a point of praising every single defender by name. “When she opens that mouth, you were killing them, Elise,” Trump said about Stefanik, who stood up and waved to the crowd. “I’ll always be your friend.”
About Nunes, Trump was rapturous: “He’s the other side’s worst nightmare…. He’s the most legitimate human being. He’s the hardest worker…. They wanted to destroy him. They tried. They got close. But he wouldn’t let it happen.” Those gathered in the room rose for a standing ovation.
Within hours of the speech, video snippets of Trump’s remarks appeared on the social media accounts and fundraising e-mails of the participants mentioned. Nunes sent an e-mail to his “top supporters” rehashing Trump’s praise:
I am truly humbled and honored by President Trump’s kind words. I have fought tooth and nail to get to the bottom of the deep state’s plot to destroy our president, even in the midst of countless personal attacks. But the fight isn’t over yet, Jake. We must continue to fight Democrat corruption and defend our democracy. Take a Stand: Pitch in $20.