This story was originally published by ProPublica.
by Isaac Arnsdorf and Derek Willis
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
Two of the leading Republican firebrands in Congress touted big fundraising hauls as a show of grassroots support for their high-profile stands against accepting the 2020 election results.
But new financial disclosures show that Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., relied on an email marketing vendor that takes as much as 80 cents on the dollar. That means their headline-grabbing numbers were more the product of expensively soliciting hardcore Republicans than an organic groundswell of far-reaching support.
Hawley and Greene each reported raising more than $3 million in the first three months of the year, an unusually large sum for freshman lawmakers, according to new filings with the Federal Election Commission. That’s more than the average House member raises in an entire two-year cycle, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The tallies generated favorable press coverage for Hawley and Greene, and they both seized on the numbers to claim a popular mandate.
Politico called Greene’s result “eye-popping” and “staggering,” a sign that she “appears to have actually benefited from all the controversies that have consumed her first few months in office.” The House voted in February to remove Greene from her committee assignments because of her social media posts that promoted far-right conspiracy theories; racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim rhetoric; and violence against Democratic leaders.
“I am humbled, overjoyed and so excited to announce what happened over the past few months as I have been the most attacked freshman member of Congress in history,” Greene said in an emailed statement on April 7. “Accumulating $3.2 million with small dollar donations is the absolute BEST support I could possibly ask for!”
As for Hawley, who was the first senator to say he’d object to certifying the Electoral College results on Jan. 6, Politico proclaimed that his massive increase showed “how anti-establishment Republicans are parlaying controversy into small-dollar fundraising success.” Hawley’s pollster, Wes Anderson with the political consulting firm OnMessage, said in a memo distributed to supporters that the “fundraising surge” made “crystal clear that a strong majority of Missouri voters and donors stand firmly with Senator Hawley, in spite of the continued false attacks coming from the radical left.”
It wasn’t until later, when the campaigns disclosed their spending details in last week’s FEC reports, that it became clearer how they raised so much money: by paying to borrow another organization’s mailing list.
“List rental” was the No. 1 expense for both campaigns, totaling almost $600,000 for each of them. It’s common for campaigns to rent lists from outside groups or other candidates to broaden their reach. But for Hawley and Greene, the cost was unusually high, amounting to almost 20% of all the money they raised in January, February and March.
The actual return on renting the lists was likely even lower, since it’s probable that not all their donations came from emailing those lists. It’s not possible to tell from the FEC filings which contributions resulted from which solicitations. Firms that sell lists sometimes demand huge cuts: The top vendor for Hawley and Greene, LGM Consulting Group, charges as much as 80%, according to a contract disclosed in Florida court records as part of a dispute involving Lacy Johnson’s long-shot bid to unseat Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.
The Hawley and Greene campaigns did not respond to requests for comment. LGM Consulting Group’s principal, Bryan G. Rudnick, also did not respond to phone messages or an email.
Far beyond these two campaigns or this one company, small-dollar fundraising has exploded thanks to easy online payments, which are rewriting the playbook for campaign finance in both parties. At the same time, the rise of email fundraising has spawned some aggressive or even deceptive marketing tactics and made plenty of room for consultants and vendors to profit. A move by then-President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign to sign up supporters for recurring payments by default led to as much as 3% of all credit card fraud claims filed with major banks, according to The New York Times. In some long-shot congressional races, consultants could walk away with almost half of all the money raised, The Washington Post reported.
Hawley’s and Greene’s list rentals show how politicians can pad their fundraising figures — if they’re willing to pay for it. There’s scant evidence that fundraising success represents broad popular support for a politician outside the narrow slice of Americans who make political contributions, and many of the people on the rented mailing lists may not have been constituents of Hawley’s or Greene’s. Still, the money is real, and the perception of fundraising star power is its own kind of success in Washington.
“They’re juicing their numbers, but their return on investment is still a net gain,” said Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, a professor at Fordham University who researches how political campaigns use digital communications. “The money matters, the articles about the money matter and convey power, and it adds to their clout.”
The cost to rent a list can be a flat fee, a percentage cut of money raised, or even all money raised after a campaign clears a certain threshold. Donors have limited visibility into where their money goes and may not realize how much is being diverted from the candidate they mean to support.
Renting lists can pay dividends for campaigns because people who respond by donating then enter the candidates’ own databases of supporters, and past contributors are much more likely to give again. Candidates with big donor bases can tap them for more money later or turn around and rent their own list to others.
Political professionals have gotten more sophisticated about efficiently converting online outrage into campaign cash. At the same time, candidates who court controversy may increasingly rely on rage-fueled online fundraising as more traditional donors freeze them out. In the aftermath of Jan. 6, Hawley lost the support of some big donors, and major companies such as AT&T and Honeywell pledged to withhold donations from lawmakers who objected to the Electoral College vote.
“The news cycle that emerges out of controversial behavior by a candidate is like a strong gust of wind, and these mechanisms like list-building are the equivalent of sails,” said Eric Wilson, a digital strategist who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “For candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Josh Hawley, who have largely been shunned by traditional corporate donors who are frequently the mainstays for elected officials, especially in off years, they have no choice but to pursue grassroots fundraising. And in order for that to work, they have to continue to make more noise. It is a feedback loop in that regard.”
It’s not clear how Rudnick compiled his list (or lists). But one clue to the audience that Rudnick may help unlock is who else has hired him. Besides Hawley and Greene, FEC records show that last quarter LGM Consulting also rented a list or provided online fundraising solicitations to:
- Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., who vowed to come armed to Congress, chafed at the use of metal detectors for members entering the House floor, and tweeted about lawmakers’ whereabouts during the Capitol breach on Jan. 6.
- Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., who “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander said helped come up with the plan to march on the Capitol on Jan. 6, which Biggs has denied.
- Tom Norton, who is challenging Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection.
- And Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the NRSC chairman who voted against certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes.
In the 2020 campaign cycle, the firm’s clients included then-Rep. Doug Collins, a Trump ally who lost the Georgia Senate primary; Madison Cawthorn, the 25-year-old congressman from North Carolina who spoke at the Jan. 6 rally; and Laura Loomer, a far-right internet personality who calls herself a “proud Islamophobe” and lost a run for a Florida congressional seat.
Rudnick has his own history of controversy. He was fired by the Pennsylvania Republican Party in 2008 after sending emails to Jewish voters likening a vote for Barack Obama to the leadup to the Holocaust. “Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake,” the email said. “Let’s not make a similar one this year!” Rudnick told the Associated Press at the time that party officials authorized the message, but he declined to name them.
Campaigns don’t have to disclose whose list an email is being sent to, and fundraising emails aren’t comprehensively made public, so it’s not possible to tell exactly how Hawley and Greene used the lists they rented. But several of Hawley’s fundraising emails contained digital fingerprints tying them to Rudnick: They were sent from a web domain that shares an address with one of Rudnick’s companies, and the links to donate include “ASG,” short for Rudnick’s Alliance Strategies Group.
In one email, sent on March 6, Hawley touted his interview on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, in which Hawley said Democrats would use the Jan. 6 insurrection “as an excuse to seize power, to control more power, to step on people’s Second Amendment rights, to take away their First Amendment rights.” Following up on a major media appearance with a fundraising email is an effective technique, Wilson said.
In a second email using the Rudnick-linked domain, Hawley explicitly laid out his goal of posting an impressive fundraising number.
“I will be filing the first FEC financial report I have filed since I stood up for the integrity of our nation’s election and the left began their attempts to cancel me,” Hawley said in the email. “With your donation of $25, $50, $100 or more before the critical deadline on March 31, we will shock the left — they won’t be able to ignore us any longer.”