As COVID-19 Scuttles Fundraising Events, Connecticut Political Committees Get Creative | Connecticut Public Radio
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As COVID-19 Scuttles Fundraising Events, Connecticut Political Committees Get Creative

Oct 29, 2020

When jobless claims soared and wide portions of the economy shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Daniel Quigley faced an unenviable task: asking people to give money to politicians. 

So, for a while, he said he just didn’t do it. 

“I think in a normal year, we would have probably started to try to raise money earlier,” said Quigley, chair of the Republican Town Committee in Greenwich. “But this year, I was more reluctant … because we knew what everyone was going through.” 

Take that initial reticence to approach donors and combine it with a high-stakes presidential race and a pandemic that canceled most in-person fundraisers, and what’s left is a 2020 election season that has made it hard for political operatives looking to raise cash.

In the end, did it actually affect party coffers? An analysis of federal data provided by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics shows statewide donations to presidential candidates and their affiliated federal party committees actually rose this election cycle compared to 2016, despite a state unemployment rate estimated at more than 12% due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, state fundraising numbers tell a slightly different story: Fundraising for the state’s two main party committees show Republican and Democratic fundraising lagged only slightly in the first three quarters of 2020, when compared to last year. Going back further, 2020’s cash haul outpaces 2018 for state Democrats, but otherwise falls short of fundraising in all prior years for both parties going back to 2016.

Tracking political money and the communities from which it flows provides an important window into the world of political access and networking.

“Historically both corporations and people who are rich will contribute to both sides of the ticket because it gives them access,” said Tess Marchant-Shapiro, a professor of political science at Southern Connecticut State University. “The money matters.”

But 2020 has upended the traditional fundraising world. 

While total donations at the federal level are rising, that same data show large donation drops from cash-flush communities like Greenwich and Westport. 

“Wealthier towns, that we would assume these dollars would be coming from, we’re not seeing that,” said Gayle Alberda, an assistant professor of politics at Fairfield University. “That could be just a byproduct of uncertainty … disengagement, or unemployment. … They could also be giving more directly to super PACs.”

Quigley said he’s seen that federal drop play out locally as he’s worked to raise money for statewide legislative candidates through his town committee. 

“I think people are more apt to want to give money when they really believe in something, and I think people are just exhausted,” Quigley said. “And then you hit them over the head with, ‘Hey there’s this huge election,’ … So it’s no surprise to me that donations are down.”

“People are just tired,” he said.

Canceled Dinners, Lost Revenue And A Lot Of Zoom Calls

In 2005, The New York Times declared “there is no hiding” from Nancy DiNardo when she’s on the hunt for a political donation. But DiNardo, a fixture in state politics and current head of the Democratic State Party, said COVID-19 put that hunt largely on hold. 

“Three-quarters of our money came from in-person events,” DiNardo said. “In March, that came to a halt.”

So DiNardo’s Democrats, like so many others weathering the pandemic, turned to Zoom as a place to connect. 

Beginning in May, she began hosting online calls to raise money. The idea was simple: Donate a little bit to the state Democrats and you could hop on a “virtual fundraiser” with a politician. The glitz and glamour of a traditional fundraising dinner was replaced with a video call, where instead of eating a meal with a politician, you might catch him making it. 

“Attorney General William Tong did a demonstration of cooking Chinese,” DiNardo said. “Jim Himes, who is a beekeeper, talked about beekeeping. He was on for 90 minutes and not one question was political … He also makes mead, so they asked questions about that.”

DiNardo said online fundraisers have opened access to more people, but “it’s a balance, because, obviously, we’re not charging as much money.” 

Exactly how that translates into bottom-line revenues is still crystalizing, but as of Oct. 22, the latest filing, state records indicate the Democratic State Central Committee banked about $97,000 during the first three quarters of this year. That’s up over 2018 totals, but down from 2016, and the same point last year. 

It’s also a significant drop compared to 2017, when state Democrats banked roughly $300,000 through the first three quarters of fundraising. A party spokesperson attributed that to the “prolific” fundraising of former Gov. Dannel Malloy.

State records show Republicans also saw dips, with the Connecticut Republican Party, the main state central committee, banking about $106,000 in annual contributions as of Oct. 22. 

In 2019, Republicans posted comparable numbers. In 2016 and 2017, they raised about 1 1/2 times as much. 

In 2018, when Republican Bob Stefanowski ran against now-Gov. Ned Lamont, the state GOP had already raised more than 3 1/2 times as much.

Connecticut Republican Party Chairman J.R. Romano said when the major dinner fundraiser for the organization was canceled due to COVID-19, he began an online speaker series, which included U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), former RNC Chair Reince Priebus and Maryland congressional candidate Kim Klacik.

“The costs are relatively low in comparison to, say, a dinner,” Romano said.

But Romano said a speaker series doesn’t necessarily appeal to some donors in the way that a traditional dinner might. 

“And if you can’t provide that for them, they’re not going to be as motivated or interested,” Romano said. “Why am I going to pay [to be] on a Zoom call with Nancy DiNardo or J.R. Romano? I actually like to go to events so that I can talk to a sitting legislator.”

Joe Angland, chair of the Greenwich Democratic Town Committee, said his group raised “more money this year than we had in most prior years,” but he said fundraising is down from 2019. 

Part of the reason, he said, is that a virtual Zoom call fails to replicate the profitability of an in-person fundraiser, even though the overhead costs are significantly lower. 

Take the committee’s annual picnic, which Angland said is generally its biggest fundraiser. This year, burgers and booze were swapped for a conference call packed with presentations. 

“So it was a picnic, except without the food and beer and companionship,” Angland said. “We certainly had a much higher profit margin. The absolute amount of the profit was lower than last year.” 

And while political organizers signaled that Zoom may play a role in future fundraising campaigns, such as when a high-profile speaker is unable or unwilling to travel to Connecticut, there was agreement that something is lost when the in-person element goes away. 

“I think a lot of people like the idea of going to the picnic to actually shake hands with the candidates, to see their fellow Democrats, and to just enjoy a good party,” Angland said. 

“The whole party aspect was removed this year,” he said.