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Surge in out-of-state donors fuels Dems in special elections

Democrat Doug Jones, who beat the Republican candidate, Roy Moore, in a Senate race in Alabama, had more than 1,300 donors in common with Jon Ossoff, the Democrat who ran for a House seat in Georgia earlier this year.
Democrat Doug Jones, who beat the Republican candidate, Roy Moore, in a Senate race in Alabama, had more than 1,300 donors in common with Jon Ossoff, the Democrat who ran for a House seat in Georgia earlier this year. AP

Wendell Rodgers didn’t donate to a single Democrat in 2016. He didn’t even vote for Hillary Clinton. But Donald Trump’s election created a political transformation in this Florida engineer, and a financial windfall for Democrats running for office.

“You had a candidate who was antithetical to everything I believe in,” Rodgers said of Trump.

Rodgers has already donated more than $10,000 to a mix of Democratic candidates and groups at the federal level in 2017, a hefty sum in an electoral off-year when political donations traditionally wane.

He’s not alone. Hundreds of newly energized donors — many of them big-money players — are fueling Democratic campaigns and providing the financial muscle behind the liberal “Resistance” against Trump.

According to a McClatchy analysis of 2017 campaign finance records, more than 1,300 donors gave to each of the Democratic candidates in two of the highest profile special elections in the year: Doug Jones, who defeated Republican Roy Moore last week in an Alabama Senate race, and Jon Ossoff, the Georgia Democrat who narrowly lost a House election in June. By comparison, the Republicans in those races had only 60 donors in common.

Those Democratic donors – 98 percent of whom were from out-of-state – accounted for more than $800,000 of the donations Jones received, or more than 15 percent of the $5 million in itemized donations he reported on his most recent filing, which covers 2017 through Nov. 22. (More than half of that amount came in the first three weeks of November, so the total amount given – and the list of donors who backed both Jones and Ossoff – will likely grow when final fundraising numbers for the Alabama contest are released next month.)

Now, carrying momentum into 2018, Democrats are counting on these newly energized donors who have been driven to action by frustration with the results of the 2016 election, anger about Trump’s presidency and concerns about the legislation being written by the Republican-controlled Congress.

“When you’re up against the Kochs and Sheldon Adelson and highly self-interested billionaires across the country, bringing new donors is essential,” said Greg Speed, who is president of the progressive group America Votes and on the board of the Eric Holder-led National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “We’ll never have as much money as the corporate special interest backing the Republicans, so the way we stay competitive in states and districts across the country is by channeling the enthusiasm into new donors and leaders.”

The list of donors to both Ossoff and Jones includes celebrities such as Two and a Half Men co-star Jon Cryer, actress Kyra Sedgwick and musician John Legend, as well as billionaire J.B. Pritzker – who’s running for governor in Illinois – and Nicola Miner and Patricia Walker, heirs to the fortunes of early executives at Oracle and Wal-Mart, respectively.

The two campaigns share more donors in common than any campaigns did in either the 2014 or 2010 midterm elections, McClatchy’s analysis found.

[McClatchy identified matches by comparing the name, city, state and zip code of donors to each committee.]

New York literary agent Barney Karpfinger had cut back on political donations after giving more than $10,000 to support Barack Obama, Kirsten Gillibrand and John Edwards in the 2008 cycle. But he was spurred to give again after Trump’s election.

“I really felt something needed to be done,” he said. “The republic was in danger.”

Janet Hart, a former lawyer whose father was a federal judge, says she’s been alarmed about some of Trump’s judicial appointments.

“Presidents have the right and obligation to appoint people to the judiciary,” she said. “But I’m very concerned that utterly unqualified people are being appointed.”

The surge of enthusiasm has helped Democrats reach prodigious fundraising totals at almost all levels of politics. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — the political arms of House Democrats and Senate Democrats, respectively — have, for example, each posted record totals this year.

The lone exception to the financial boon has been the Democratic National Committee, which has struggled to raise money as it tries to repair its relationship with liberals angry at how the group treated Bernie Sanders during last year’s Democratic presidential primary.

Hart, for example, said that while she and her husband have donated heavily to the DNC in the past, they were inclined to give more to candidates directly because of their disagreement with the DNC on several issues, including its willingness to back pro-life candidates.

For guidance on which candidates to support, Hart has turned to the analysis of Swing Left, one of several newly formed progressive groups, which have mushroomed since Trump’s election. Leaders at Swing Left say it has raised more than $3 million for Democrats running in battleground House seats.

Karpfinger, the New York agent, says he plans to continue giving to candidates in 2018 and hopes it will lead to more victories like the one in Alabama last week.

“I think there’s a Democratic wave coming next fall,” he said. “And I want to do everything I can to make it as big a wave as it can possibly be.”

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6078, @Alex_Roarty