Palin’s small-donor fundraising shows path around GOP establishment to nomination

Jon Ward Contributor
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Sarah Palin has demonstrated she can go around the mainstream media using Facebook and Twitter. But her recent fundraising shows that she can also, if she so desires, go around the established network of high dollar conservative “whale” donors who have underwritten most Republican candidates for president in recent history.

In other words, she’s a wild card who can pretty much do what she wants, no matter how the GOP establishment feels about it.

The FEC report filed Sunday by SarahPAC, Palin’s political action committee, showed a remarkably high percentage of small dollar donors who gave less than $200. The bulk of the money received in the second quarter—$660,000 out of $865,000—was unitemized. That means it came from supporters whose contribution was not only less than $200, but who may have given multiple times yet still not gone over the $200 mark in total giving. Palin aides would not comment on how many contributions were made to reach the $660,000.

Even out of the $200,000 that came from donors with contributions of $200 or more for the calendar year, SarahPAC received only 10 gifts of $5,000, the maximum amount allowed under law, from the beginning of April through the end of June. One donor gave $3,000. But the average donation for these itemized contributions was $285, according to an analysis of the numbers by The Daily Caller.

Palin, who spent $153,679 on direct mail efforts to solicit donations, was outraised by other leading Republican names in the second quarter. Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio raised a whopping $4.5 million. Ohio Senate candidate Rob Portman raised $2.6 million. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann raised $1.7 million, though some of that came in with the help of a fundraiser hosted by Palin.

Yet Palin’s large number of small contributions lays out a potential path to the Republican nomination for president in 2012 despite the presence of a major obstacle: many of the most influential people in the Republican Party believe it would be a disaster if she became the nominee.

“I don’t ever think she would make a major breakthrough with the high dollar folks,” said Vin Weber, a top Washington Republican lobbyist, who backed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination in 2008 but is co-chair of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s PAC.

“That would be the story of a Palin campaign. She would finance the campaign largely through small donors and internet donors and things like that,” Weber said in an interview, comparing Palin’s ability to raise large amounts of cash online to President Obama’s during his campaign.

Weber also said that inside the GOP “there would be a lot of people with misgivings” about a Palin candidacy for the GOP nomination in 2012.

“But I think they’d be very reluctant to express them. She is so clearly the champion of a large swath of grassroots Republicans,” he said, adding that this would have a domino effect on Palin’s ability to recruit operatives to build a campaign infrastructure, removing a potential barrier for ambitious campaign professionals on the right to go work for Palin.
Juleanna Glover, a veteran of national Republican campaigns, said that “there are a number of top operatives who would be willing to advise [Palin].”

“There are always savvy smart passionate strategists developing in the pipeline. Any number of those would leap at [an] opportunity to run a national campaign w[ith] assets and acres of earned media available at the asking,” Glover said by e-mail.

“Won’t be some of the McCain folks though,” Glover added, referring to Palin’s very public falling out with top members of Sen. John McCain’s inner circle during the 2008 presidential campaign, most notably campaign manager Steve Schmidt and top adviser Nicolle Wallace.

Still, many within the GOP question whether Palin really will want to go through another campaign, and whether she would be able to build the organization it takes to run for president in the modern political age.

“No doubt she can excite the grassroots and generate a lot of enthusiasm,” said a highly placed Republican in Washington, who spoke about Palin on the condition he not be identified. “Whether she can go beyond that given a thin public policy record, that’s the question everybody is waiting to see … Her campaign will probably look more like a guerilla campaign.”

An aide to the Senate Republican leadership agreed.

The key to her candidacy is not going to be a traditional one. She’s going to hold out as long as she can to be the elephant in the room,” the Senate GOP aide said.

Among the 10 Palin supporters who gave the $5,000 maximum donation in the second quarter, there were a handful of donors who fit the “whale” description.

Andrea Bollinger, of Thibodaux, Louisiana, comes from the Bollinger Shipyards, Inc. family, which has given prolifically to mostly Republican candidates in past cycles.

David Voelker, an investment banker from New Orleans, also has given large sums, such as $25,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2004, as well as $4,600 to Barack Obama in 2008.

But it appears that Palin’s success or failure if she decides to run will depend on donors such as Laurie Beitman, a small business owner from Parkville, Maryland. Beitman gave to Palin on three occasions in the second quarter, donating $35 on May 24, $20 on June 5 and $30 on June 11. Beitman has given $281 all together to SarahPAC this year.

“I wish I could give her more. If I could I would,” Beitman said by phone Tuesday. “She’s my voice right now. She supports candidates all over the country that I would probably support. And I think she’s the voice of many millions of Americans right now who feel the country is heading in the wrong direction.”

Asked whether she hopes Palin will run for president, Beitman said: “I can only pray every day that she does.”

One other element to Palin’s success is to keep the political world guessing about her intentions. She “must continue to dip her toe into political waters in order to stay current and topical,” said Brad Blakeman, a White House official during the last Bush administration.

“Her PAC provides jobs for her infrastructure so she does not have to dip into her own pocket to pay salaries. A PAC staff can be morphed into her own beginnings of a campaign staff if she so chooses. I believe she is keeping all options open, looking to exploit any opportunities that may arise,” Blakeman said.

Palin’s inner circle has grown in recent months but still remains a somewhat eclectic mix, including bloggers Rebecca Mansour and Joseph Russo, who were hired after starting a blog called Conservatives4Palin.com. Mansour’s Aries Petra Consulting was paid $22,000 from April through June for her work in helping maintain Palin’s Facebook page and doing outreach to grassroots supporters.

But Palin also employs professional operatives such as Bush White House advance office veteran Jason Recher, who was paid $35,000 through his firm, NorthStar Strategies, in the second quarter, and Randy Schuenemann, who was a foreign policy adviser to McCain during the campaign and was paid $30,000 through his Orion Strategies consulting firm.

Palin has also shown some inkling that she is interested in laying groundwork in Iowa, the first state to vote – and one she would be expected to win – in a Republican primary. She gave $5,000 to Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican, on June 24, and $5,000 to Republican gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad on June 29, after he won the June 8 primary.

“A few donations to Iowa politicians does not a campaign strategy make, but it shows that she’s interested,” said a former McCain/Palin campaign official.

Palin has also given money to key South Carolina Republicans, the state that would come third in the primary voting, after Iowa and New Hampshire.

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