Small-scale donations dwindling for Brown

By Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / May 31, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The torrent of small campaign contributions from around the country that flooded GOP Senator Scott Brown’s campaign coffers ahead of his special election last year has all but dried up, as the excitement generated by his campaign has faded and some of his votes have disillusioned rank-and-file conservatives.

In 2010, then-state Senator Brown’s promise to upend the Democratic status quo in Massachusetts and help derail President Obama’s health care overhaul inspired thousands of Americans to send him small contributions — $5, $10, $100 at a time. More than half of the $15.2 million Brown raised by Election Day came in individual contributions of less than $200.

Since Brown took office in the US Senate, the share of those small contributions has plunged from 54 percent of his financial haul during the race to 15 percent during the first three months of 2011.

As Brown raises money for his 2012 reelection bid, he has accepted a greater percentage of large contributions from the typical Washington roster of industry political committees, business executives, and corporate lobbyists. Brown had not won the support of many of those sources before his improbable victory, and since then they have signed on as financial backers.

Brown’s strategists say it was an inevitable shift after a “once-in-a-lifetime’’ quest to seize the seat that had been held by the late Edward M. Kennedy.

Campaign finance specialists say Brown’s financial record is a textbook case of an outsider becoming an insider.

“Generally speaking, once you’re in a position of power, people who want to use that power or benefit from that power are going to try to cozy up to you as much as possible,’’ said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks campaign contributions. “If you’re in office, there’s a whole lot of folks that want to meet you, greet you, and influence you.’’

But in rural West Virginia, a one-time Brown supporter says he felt betrayed by the GOP senator.

When retired telephone worker Stephen Colkett first heard that a Republican had a chance to win the Senate seat in Massachusetts, he sat down at his computer and did something he had never done before: gave $50 to a political candidate. But not long after Brown’s victory Colkett wrote on a Scott Brown campaign website that he wanted his money back.

Although Brown still votes with the Senate GOP on most issues, he lost some of his conservative and Tea Party movement support last year as he helped Democrats with, among other things, passage of a banking regulation overhaul and a $15 billion package of tax cuts and spending that conservatives viewed as a budget-buster.

“You sold out the people. You are just another liberal,’’ said Colkett, 61, who, since retiring, has run a martial-arts studio in the central West Virginia town of Harrisville. Colkett said in an interview last week that he does not plan on making any more contributions to any candidates. “I’m getting a little apathetic,’’ he said.

Political analysts say Brown’s loss of small-time financial support from around the country reflects the typical evolution of an incumbent senator who is tapping into the Washington fund-raising system.

But they said it also stems from a decline in active participation among conservatives who helped propel Republicans and Tea Party candidates to victories in midterm congressional elections last year. The election helped them realize a key goal: getting Washington to talk seriously about deficits.

“That was a huge success, and that took some of the wind out of their sails. People believe they can relax now,’’ said University of Washington professor Christopher Parker, who conducted a recent poll that found the percentage of people enthusiastic about the Tea Party movement had dropped from 33 percent last year to 26 percent this year.

A spokesman for Brown declined to make him available for an interview and referred questions to political adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, who characterized Brown’s victory last year as a “once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon that’s not going to be repeated.’’

“His success back then in raising small-dollar donations from around the country was owing to the fact his was the only race in the country and to the unique political circumstances of the time,’’ Fehrnstrom said in a statement. “Since Senator Brown’s election, we have worked to give him a more traditional fund-raising operation that is heavily reliant on events and personal meetings in Massachusetts, and not on money just flowing over the transom unsolicited from all points on the compass.’’

His campaign finance reports dramatically reflect that shift. Brown’s out-of-state contributions went from more than 80 percent during his election campaign last year to 37 percent so far this year, according to Fehrnstrom’s figures.

“The people of Massachusetts like what they see in Scott Brown and they are responding with financial support,’’ he said.

Brown also is racking up a larger share from political action committees connected to corporate interests and conservative causes. Those groups accounted for 2 percent of his contributions leading up to his election and have accounted for 18 percent — or $785,000 — of the $4.4 million he has raised since his election in January last year.

The largest amounts have come from the health, financial, and defense sectors, all important industries in Massachusetts. Brown is a member of the Senate Armed Services, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs committees.

Brown also has had some significant out-of-state support from larger check writers, picking up nearly $400,000 in the first quarter of this year alone from supporters in Illinois and the traditional fund-raising meccas of New York and California.

The level of grass-roots support that Brown once enjoyed would be difficult to maintain for anyone, said Dennis Hale, a political science professor at Boston College. But Brown’s siding with Democrats on a few key votes has made it even more difficult.

“In this environment, the people in the Tea Party, for example, are so committed to change, it’s pretty unforgiving,’’ Hale said. “He got one shot, one strike, he’s out.’’

In Brown’s election, Tea Party groups created a “money bomb,’’ an online solicitation that drew many of the small contributions from across the country. But it’s unclear if there will be any more such Tea Party movement help for Brown.

Mark Meckler, cofounder and national coordinator for one of the largest national Tea Party groups, the Tea Party Patriots, declined to say if it planned to raise money for Brown again. But he said in a statement that there will be “electoral consequences for those who stray from the path of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets.’’

Locally, though, Brown may not have much to worry about. Holliston resident Christen Varley, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, said some of her allies have expressed disappointment over Brown’s votes.

“People say, ‘I’m not going to stand in the snow for this guy.’ ’’ But Varley, who gave Brown $200 at a fund-raiser this month, said that in Massachusetts, there will be no alternative for conservatives and they will cast their ballots for Brown.

“You know, Massachusetts is not Ohio,’’ she said. “Birthday cakes are for wishes. This is government.’’

Donovan Slack can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @DonovanSlack. top stories on Twitter

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