2024 GOP candidates desperate for debate find creative ways to boost donor base

Six weeks away from the first Republican presidential debate of 2024, some hopefuls are finding creative ways to increase their donor base and ensure they get to the stage.

Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has a plan in place whereby people who fundraise for his campaign keep 10% of what they receive from other donors. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum is offering $20 Mastercard or Visa gift cards in exchange for campaign donations of as little as $1. Businessman Perry Johnson offers copies of his book in exchange for donations.

The unusual efforts fulfill a Republican National Committee requirement that participants in the Aug. 23 debate in Milwaukee raise funds from at least 40,000 donors across the country. It’s a daunting task for some of the prospects who aren’t as well-known as former President Donald Trump or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

It’s an acknowledgment of the make-or-break opportunity that the debate stage offers lower-level candidates in a broad field who need media exposure to share their message and reach voters.

Dan Weiner, an attorney who directs the election and government program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said “unorthodox fundraising” tactics are becoming more common, noting that candidates try new things knowing that the Federal Election Commission could take action if they are legal or ethical. concerns were raised.

“More often than not, these at least sometimes raise questions about whether they’re skirting the edge of the law,” Weiner said. “In either case, do I necessarily think the FEC is going to do something about it? Maybe, but I would be a little skeptical.

On Monday, Ramaswamy, who kicked off his campaign with a $10 million injection of his own money, outlined the “Vivek Kitchen Cabinet,” a plan he says will “democratize” the fundraising process by allowing fundraisers to keep 10% of what they bring in. for him.

“Why should it be a member of a managerial class that is a secret, closed group of fundraisers, in the cloistered world of politics?” Ramaswamy asked in a video posted to Twitter. “It shouldn’t be.”

On Tuesday, Ramaswamy’s campaign said more than 1,000 people had signed up for the program, which hires people as independent contractors subject to compliance with FEC regulations, according to the campaign’s website.

Burgum, a wealthy former software entrepreneur now in his second term as governor of North Dakota, announced a program on Monday to give away gift cards — “Biden Relief Cards,” as a critic of the administration economy by President Joe Biden – up to 50,000 people, just above the minimum donor threshold.

Campaign spokesman Lance Trover said the effort “allows us to secure a place on the debate stage while avoiding paying more advertising costs to social media platforms whose owners are hostile to conservatives”. The campaign said it could hit its maximum of 50,000 cards by the end of the weekend.

Paul S. Ryan, a campaign finance attorney who has worked for nonprofit watchdog groups like Common Cause, said Burgum’s reimbursement framework appears to be a clear violation of campaign finance law. .

“Burgum contributes to its own campaign using the names of people who opt into its gift card program,” Ryan said. “All of these gift card recipients are straw givers.”

Burgum’s campaign said its legal advisers reviewed and approved the fundraising mechanism. The FEC said in a statement Friday that it would not comment on the legality of Burgum’s plan.

Johnson, a wealthy but largely unknown businessman from Michigan, announced last month that he would give away copies of his book “Two Cents to Save America” ​​- which retails for $20 – to anyone who donates to his campaign.

Gift cards and other giveaways have been used by campaigns before, both in presidential races and other contests.

In 2014, Republican Bruce Rauner’s campaign handed out thousands of prepaid Visa gift cards to volunteers helping to rally support for his successful Illinois gubernatorial campaign. According to the Chicago Tribune, the expense was not revealed until months after the election, when Rauner’s political committee recovered nearly $55,000 after the “liquidation of previously purchased assets – redemption of gift cards,” according to the financial documents.

Many of Rauner’s advisers now run Burgum’s campaign.

In the 2020 presidential election cycle, as Democratic campaigns complained about the high threshold to advance to the debate stage, tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang said he would give a “freedom dividend” of $1,000 per month. months for a year to 10 American families, a key principle. of its universal basic income proposal. The offer prompted questions about whether he was trying to buy votes, but also generated online buzz and helped the campaign build a list of possible supporters.

Within days, nearly half a million people had reportedly signed up for the chance to receive payment. During that same fundraising quarter, Yang’s campaign grossed over $16 million, its best quarterly release yet. His campaign then flopped and he ended his run as New Hampshire counted its first primary results in the nation in February.

In addition to the donor threshold, Republican candidates must meet other quality requirements for the party’s first debate in 2024. They must earn at least 1% in three high-quality national polls, or a mix of national and early state polls, between July 1 and August 21. They must sign a pledge supporting the eventual Republican 2024 nominee. And they must agree not to participate in any non-RNC-sanctioned debates for the remainder of the election cycle, which includes traditional general election debates hosted by the Commission on presidential debates over the past three decades.

Weiner predicted that campaign tactics would only become more innovative as the 2024 election drew closer and debate thresholds grew steeper.

“The campaigns are kind of heating up right now, and you tend to see more of it with insurgent candidacies,” he said. “Campaigns should have some kind of leeway to be creative.”


Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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