Joshua Green

Raising money on the fringe

By Joshua Green
October 14, 2010

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IF ANY doubts remained, the events of the last week ought to persuade even the most jaded skeptics that this election cycle is the craziest in a long time — maybe ever. In New York, Carl Paladino’s schizophrenic gubernatorial campaign crashed on, with the candidate fulminating against “gays in Speedos,’’ while insisting he wasn’t homophobic. In Ohio, Rich Iott, a candidate for Congress, made national headlines for dressing up in Nazi uniforms. In Nevada, Sharron Angle, who is running for the Senate, suggested that cities in Michigan and Texas had fallen under Sharia law, the latest in a string of bizarre pronouncements from her. It’s gotten so that ordinary scandals, like the corruption charges facing Representatives Charles Rangel of New York and Maxine Waters of California, barely draw any notice.

You might think these candidates would have little hope of getting elected, but some of them will win. The most surprising news was what Sharron Angle managed to achieve despite her outlandish tendencies: On Tuesday, her campaign announced that it had raised an astonishing $14 million last quarter, mostly from small donors. This instantly made her a credible threat to knock off Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, with whom she is running neck and neck.

“This is a testament to the hatred of Harry Reid, the nation’s disapproval of President Obama, and the unprecedented grassroots support for Sharron Angle,’’ her spokesman said. The first two claims are debatable, but the last one is not. Doing and saying crazy things may draw lousy press coverage and scare away major party donors. But Angle showed that it doesn’t hamper efforts to raise money from the grass roots. It may even help.

Angle’s fundraising success is a legacy of Barack Obama’s pioneering efforts in the 2008 presidential campaign. Obama, too, was largely shut out from major donors at the outset of his campaign, not because he seemed unstable but because most were pledged to rival Hillary Clinton. In early 2007, the idea that he could win the Democratic nomination seemed almost as far-fetched as the idea of Senator Sharron Angle. Yet Obama managed to raise enormous sums in small increments over the Internet by tapping into his party’s grass roots, which allowed him to compete with, and eventually overtake, Clinton’s more traditional efforts.

Obama’s success was hailed as a triumphant, democratizing blow to an insular political system that had excluded “outsiders.’’ But Obama was never really an outsider; he is a mainstream politician and has governed as such.

Angle is a true outsider in every sense. If she pulls off an upset, she probably won’t get anything like the acclaim that greeted Obama, but her success will be every bit as significant and likely to have a greater effect on the tenor of national politics.

Here’s why. Republicans, even more than Democrats, traditionally have operated as a top-down organization. One way in which the GOP exerted its power was through its biggest financial contributors, who were capable of bestowing legitimacy on a candidate through the act of a writing a large check, and likewise able to diminish a candidate’s viability by withholding one.

Most big donors weren’t willing to take a flyer on a fringe candidate like Angle, certainly not when a more electable alternative was present. Big donors were also fickle benefactors, quick to withdraw their support and focus on other races if a candidate’s prospects began to dim. In this way, the donor base acted as a moderating force.

That informal influence began to break down during the primaries, as Tea Party insurgents like Angle and Rand Paul in Kentucky knocked off the establishment’s preferred candidates. One reason why experts and pundits were so quick to write them off was that they were precisely the type of candidates whom major donors consider unelectable, which meant these insurgents had no obvious way of raising enough money to compete in a general election.

Angle has now demonstrated that, in fact, some of them do. Just as the liberal grassroots overwhelmed the Democratic establishment to nominate Obama, the angry base of conservative activists has made viable a candidate who would not have been in any previous election cycle. And Angle is a true radical. This time, when change comes to Washington, it will be for real.

Joshua Green is senior editor of The Atlantic. His column appears regularly in the Globe.