Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has seen a tsunami of Democratic small-dollar donations flood the South Carolina Senate race, says the sources of the massive amounts of money flowing through ActBlue and other groups need to be reviewed by policymakers.
Graham says that Congress has little idea who’s behind the huge inflows of money that have given his opponent, Jaime Harrison, and other Democratic challengers a major fundraising advantage over GOP incumbents in the final weeks of the campaign.
“Where’s all this money coming from ActBlue coming from? How easy would it be to just have a bunch of pre-paid credit cards?” he asked The Hill.
ActBlue, a nonprofit technology company founded in 2004, provides online fundraising software to help Democratic candidates and liberal groups amass contributions from small-dollar donors.
“Some of these shadowy figures out there running ads, is there any foreign influence afoot?” Graham asked
“Where is all this money coming from? You don’t have to report it if it’s below $200,” he added, referring to campaign finance rules that don’t require public reporting of individuals who give less than $200. “When this election is over with, I hope there will be a sitting down and finding out, ‘OK, how do we control this?’ It just seems to be an endless spiral.”
Graham suggested that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) may be interested in teaming up on a review of campaign finance practices and the possibility of new regulation.
“I think we’re going to have to up our game in terms of competing with this,” he said, referring to fellow Republicans.
ActBlue funneled a stunning $1.5 billion in small-dollar contributions to Democratic candidates and allied groups in the third quarter of 2020. It helped rake in $500 million in the two weeks after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Senate Republicans quickly vowed to fast-track the confirmation proceedings for President Trump’s nominee to replace her, conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett, angering the left.
Harrison raised an astounding $57 million in the third quarter.
Graham, by contrast, raised $28 million in the third quarter, lagging behind his opponent significantly.
He grumbled about it during the Barrett confirmation hearings and said he is getting closer to the view of colleagues who want to put more regulation on campaign finance.
“I don’t know what’s going on out there, but I can tell you there’s a lot of money being raised in this campaign,” he said.
An ActBlue spokesperson said the group reports even its smallest donations to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which oversees fundraising for federal campaigns.
An ActBlue spokesperson said the claim that ActBlue does not report contributions under $200 is false.
The spokesperson said ActBlue reports every contribution, including those under $200, and that every federal donation made on ActBlue, including donations of only $1, can be verified on the FEC’s website.
A review of Harrison’s campaign fundraising report filed with the FEC shows that he reports contributions as small as $5 from ActBlue, but the data on file doesn’t reveal the name or address of the individual making the gift as would be reported for a donation above $200.
ActBlue, which reported collecting $2.4 billion in contributions from Jan. 1, 2019, through Aug. 31, is due to file its October monthly report with the FEC this week. Those reports will provide the names, hometowns and employers of donors who give contributions more than $10 and reveal to which candidates the gifts are earmarked.
Harrison’s reporting for the 2020 election cycle so far shows that he has accepted $45.7 million in unitemized contributions.
One key Republican who does not appear interested in exploring new regulations on small-dollar fundraising networks such as ActBlue is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a longtime opponent of campaign finance reform.
“Let me give a shout-out to the Democrats. The lion’s share of the money that’s flooding into campaigns is coming from small donors,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday. “I can give you an example. In my own campaign, I’ve got over 700,000 donors and the average contribution is about 35 bucks.”
“I don’t think any kind of campaign finance reform designed to producing fewer people interested is a good idea,” he said. “As you know, I’ve been in the forefront for 25 years of fending off efforts by the government to restrict campaign contribution because it is the only way that normal citizens get to participate, other than voting.”
Other Republicans are suspicious of ActBlue’s seismic impact on the 2020 Senate battleground map, with a few sounding more open to looking into them.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), whose Democratic opponent raised nearly twice as much as him in the third quarter, is also suspicious of ActBlue.
He says a probe into the group’s vast small-donor networks to ascertain their legitimacy would be “worthwhile.”
“It’s probably a good idea,” he said. “My understanding is that any donation under $200 they don’t even have to identify the donor so obviously there’s a lot of opportunity for mischief.”
“So, I think that would be worthwhile,” he said
Democratic candidate M.J. Hegar raised $14 million in the third quarter compared to Cornyn’s haul of $7.2 million.
Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), whose committee spearheaded the Republican-led investigations into the Clinton-era soft-money fundraising scandals of the late 1990s, said he called for investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s small-dollar bundling network before the 2016 presidential election.
“I was always concerned about it during the Clinton campaign because you had all these allegations of bundling and all these donations coming in just under $200. Anytime you set up these types of systems people can figure out how to exploit the systems,” he said.
“I think it’s probably a very legitimate avenue for inquiry,” he said.
Johnson said his committee hasn’t looked significantly into the issue and said he would welcome whistleblowers coming forward.
“If we could find evidence of it — we could have some whistleblowers. A lot of our investigations start with people contacting us,” he said. “We will continue to investigate things, but you do need information.”
“I think the amount of money being spent on these campaigns is grotesque,” Johnson added.