Internet-based PAC driving Democratic push
Small donors fuel big support drive
CAMBRIDGE -- The new headquarters of ActBlue, with its tangled cords, leftover Deval Patrick signs, and 20-somethings tapping on white MacBook laptops, is what a political campaign would look like if it shared space with a dot-com start-up.
ActBlue is in fact both -- an Internet-based political action committee that is quietly becoming one of the biggest forces in Democratic politics. Its founders aim for nothing short of revolution, and they are already partway there.
The PAC, operated from a former architecture studio on Arrow Street near Harvard Square, functions as an online clearinghouse for campaign contributions to Democrats of all stripes, allowing anyone in the country to donate any allowable amount to any candidate with the click of a mouse: You send the money to ActBlue (actblue.com), and ActBlue funnels it to the campaigns. This gives local, state, and national Democratic candidates a cheap, efficient means of building a base of supporters over the Internet.
This simple but transformative concept has raised $25.5 million and counting since its creation in Cambridge in 2004, when two computer-savvy scientists with liberal leanings set out to take political action in a new direction. They believed that armies of small donors, mobilized effectively, could be more potent than the "bun dlers" who have dominated fund-raising by amassing checks from wealthy contributors.
Today, with that philosophy ascendant and the 2008 presidential campaign breaking all fund-raising records, ActBlue has become a unique bundler of the unbundled. It is reshaping political fund-raising and giving the Democratic Party a powerful, lasting resource for presidential contests, state legislative races, and everything in between.
"There's a huge opportunity to involve many times more people in this process than we currently have," said Benjamin Rahn, 30, a Harvard graduate who suspended his doctoral work in theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology to found ActBlue with Matt DeBergalis, 29, a technology whiz out of MIT.
ActBlue, in coordination with campaigns, bloggers, and individuals across the country, has funneled donations to 1,500 Democratic candidates to date. It moved $17 million to candidates in the 2005-2006 election cycle, including about $15.5 million to congressional campaigns, part of a tide of support that flipped the House and Senate to Democratic control.
ActBlue appears to have been far and away the biggest direct donor to congressional candidates of either party last fall. "They are revolutionizing approaches to fund-raising," said Anthony Corrado, a specialist on campaign finance at Colby College.
Rahn and DeBergalis say they are just getting started. They predict confidently that they will move $100 million in the 2007-2008 cycle.
Indeed, their fund-raising this year suggests that the PAC will be an even bigger player in the months ahead. Through the end of June, ActBlue had already raised $6.6 million in 2007. In the last off-year, 2005, it took ActBlue 12 months to raise $1.6 million. The 28,925 new contributors who signed up in April, May, and June of this year represented 13 percent of its overall number of contributors.
Though ActBlue's founders say that its relative influence will be greatest in down-ticket races, this is their first venture into the Democratic presidential primary. Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina uses ActBlue for all his online fund-raising. As of yesterday, he had raised $3.6 million from 44,120 supporters on the site, the vast majority on a page set up by the campaign. In all, Edwards has raised $23.1 million.
But Edwards has also raised about $1 million through individual fund-raising pages that ActBlue allows users to create -- some with tiny tallies. One, Desert Rats for Edwards, had raised $225 from three donors as of yesterday, while a page called Pizza for Progressives had raised $830 from 27 people. Rahn and DeBergalis say that's just how ActBlue should work: low-dollar contributors banding together.
"It's really an important change in terms of strengthening democracy [and] getting people of lesser means into the process," said Joe Trippi, a senior adviser to Edwards who helped Howard Dean build his novel online fund-raising system in 2004. "Not a bunch of people can contribute $2,000 or buy $2,300 dinner tickets."
The only other presidential candidate to have raised even six figures on ActBlue is Bill Richardson, who has collected more than $300,000.
By raising money through ActBlue, Edwards and Richardson are helping the PAC itself, which is supported in part by tips that donors can tack onto their gifts to candidates. Edwards wins praise from some on the left for supporting ActBlue as he raises money for himself.
Illinois Senator Barack Obama uses a similar online fund-raising model, but he is using his own website instead of ActBlue. Obama has raised a total of $58.9 million -- $17.2 million of it online. Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki noted that the campaign has built the biggest grass-roots network in primary history -- Obama had 260,000 unique contributors through June -- and didn't need to rely on a third-party website.
"We've had a great deal of success with encouraging and driving people to our site, for fund-raising but also for organization," she said. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Once the party has its nominee next year, all presidential donors on ActBlue will be working for the same cause, offering not just untold millions in campaign funds but potentially thousands of activists nationwide.
Republicans concede that with ActBlue's success, they have a lot of ground to make up -- and quickly. In the next few weeks, they will roll out a new and improved version of their own grass-roots fund-raising site, ABCPac (abcpac.com), which got started last year and sent $300,000 to GOP congressional candidates last fall. The GOP hopes ABCPac matures into a serious ActBlue competitor.
"They've been incredibly successful for the Democrats, and there's been no Republican answer," said Jason Torchinsky, ABCPac's general counsel.
ActBlue has already helped drive significant Democratic victories in Congressional races. Donors and activists connected through ActBlue, for example, helped send Jim Webb to an upset last fall of Republican Senator George Allen of Virginia by contributing $900,000.
The surprise victory of challenger Joe Sestak in a Pennsylvania Congressional race last year illustrates the powerful nexus between ActBlue and the liberal blogosphere. When Sestak, a three-star Navy admiral, became a favorite of liberal bloggers, they began championing his candidacy and sending readers to ActBlue to make donations. Sestak unseated Republican Curt Weldon, thanks in part to the $868,000 his campaign raised through ActBlue -- more than a fourth of all the money he raised.
"We tied into that yearning to participate," Sestak said.
But Rahn and DeBergalis believe ActBlue's great potential lies in its ability to "nationalize" local races in the 23 states in which the PAC operates. They note that Congressional districts will be redrawn again in 2010. With state legislatures drawing those lines, they say, strategic donations to Democratic state legislative candidates could have a major impact on the fate of the national party.
"At that level, the relative impact is massive," DeBergalis said. "An entire class of novel ways to tackle political and social problems is sitting there waiting for that catalyst that we can bring."
The model DeBergalis and Rahn have built is not entirely new -- they acknowledge debts to Dean's presidential campaign and groups such as EMILY's List, a grass-roots network working to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. But what they are doing with it is new, and as the PAC grows -- they are hiring more staff -- so do their ambitions.
"We like to say this is an experiment, and it is," DeBergalis said. "But we're not kidding around."
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com