Most politicians with national ambitions are playing coy about running for president in 2024. But behind the scenes, Republicans are on a quiet and unprecedented spending spree to build the foundations for potential national campaigns.
A half-dozen potential GOP candidates, most of whom won’t be on the ballot in 2022, still spent more than $1.4 million each on email list rentals, digital consulting and online fundraising in 2021, according to a WEBICNEWS analysis of campaign finance disclosures. Some were building an online base from scratch, while others were expanding on existing programs. But all of them are already running a race to build the type of fundraising base that can sustain a national campaign and test their appeal to a national audience.
The prime example is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), whose campaign committee spent a whopping $13.6 million overall in 2021 — more than almost every senator running for reelection in 2022, even though Cruz’s seat isn’t up for two more years. At least $3.3 million of that went into digital services, while Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R-Mo.) campaign spent $1.7 million online last year. Two PACs started by contenders currently out of office, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, spent $2.4 million and $1.4 million online, respectively.
And hanging over everything is former President Donald Trump, whose Save America political operation spent $6.4 million on digital politicking in 2021, including $2.8 million on ads, according to data shared by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic firm that tracks these expenditures.
“Anyone who’s serious about running for president in 2024 has already begun building a campaign behind the scenes, and the foundation of a good campaign is a big database of supporters,” said Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who worked on Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid. “You can’t wait until you launch your campaign to build an online donor base.”
Especially for candidates who are not currently in office, “there’s definitely some interest here. Whether that means 2024 or 2028, that’s an open question,” said Tim Cameron, a Republican digital consultant.
“Forming these outside groups or super PACs, and using them as a vehicle for online list building, is the new exploratory committee,” Cameron said. “This is how you test the waters.”
Growing a digital operation is not a guarantee that any candidate will run for president, but it’s about leaving options open, GOP operatives said. It also reflects the rising cost of running a statewide race and the realities that any modern campaign must include small-dollar donors. Senate campaigns, from Georgia to Arizona, smashed fundraising and spending records in 2020, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Rubio’s (R-Fla.) campaigns also spent big on digital expenditures last year, though they’re running for reelection this year. In 2020, South Carolina hosted one of the most expensive Senate races in history, and while it’s not expected to draw nearly as much attention in 2022, Scott spent $5.5 million on digital-related efforts last year. In Florida, a perennial battleground, Rubio spent nearly $1.8 million on it.
“Every race has become nationalized in terms of fundraising, so even if you’re just running for Senate in Florida, it’s important that you have support in 49 other states because you need that fundraising help,” said Terry Sullivan, who managed Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid. He added that a large bank account can ward off primary challengers in your own state, too.
“It can be both,” said Michael Duncan, a Republican digital consultant. “It can be, ‘I’m planning on running for president,’ and it can also be, ‘I want to have a national profile and have more influence in the caucus.’”
There are other ways to measure potential interest in the next presidential race, including travel to states like Iowa and New Hampshire and contributions to candidates in those early-voting states. Next month, New Hampshire Republican Party fundraiser in D.C. will feature Sens. Cruz, Tim Scott and Rick Scott (R-Fla.), all of whom made trips to early-voting states over the last year.
But the spending dynamic over the last year is nearly identical to the digital arms race that played out among Democrats four years ago, well ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign. Having watched Bernie Sanders’ digital fundraising operation grow into a behemoth in 2016 — and knowing they would likely have to compete with Sanders in 2020 — Democratic presidential hopefuls spent millions building their online capabilities.
Then-Sen. Kamala Harris, in particular, focused on building a strong digital infrastructure, dropping more than $1.2 million on Facebook ads during the second half of 2018. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kristen Gillibrand raised over $10 million online while running in noncompetitive Senate races in 2018.
Tim Tagaris, who ran Sanders’ vaunted digital operation, said his team was “always looking at FEC data to see the size of operations people were building in advance of the 2020 campaign.” They’d also compare those totals to the volume raised on ActBlue, the fundraising platform used by Democratic candidates and campaigns, “to see if there was any traction there.”
“Like in 2018 on the Democratic side, the more organized ones are spending now to prepare for 2023, and those will be the better-organized, better-funded campaigns,” said Peter Albrecht, a Democratic digital consultant.
Nothing approaching the activity on the Republican side is happening in Democratic politics, with President Joe Biden indicating he plans to run for reelection in 2024 and freezing other activity in the party. Still, prominent Democrats aren’t letting their email lists go stale. For example, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who ran for president in 2020, spent nearly $2 million out of her campaign account last year, even though she’s not up for reelection until 2024.
Some of the early preparation among Republicans may stem from them eying a tactic that sprang out of the Democratic primary. In 2019 and 2020, the Democratic National Committee required candidates to have certain numbers of small-dollar donors to reach the primary debate stages, a move that “led to an unprecedented small-dollar acquisition effort,” which “benefited the ultimate nominee,” Duncan said.
And, part of considering a presidential run — and making the pitch to high-dollar donors that you can succeed — means demonstrating the ability to gain national traction. Running a robust, successful small-dollar fundraising operation is “a good test case” for that, said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital consultant, who still noted that it’s “not a firm indication” that any particular Republican is running for president.
“If you can raise money online from the grassroots, that informs your strength as a potential candidate,” Wilson added. “It’s a good proof of concept.”