Stateline Story

State Democrats Ask: 'What's in Your Wallet?'

  • June 12, 2006
  • By Eric Kelderman

Twenty-five balloons to raise the profile of candidate Deval Patrick : $6.25.

A T-shirt touting the virtues of Gov. Jennifer Granholm : $20.

Preventing Republicans from winning either the Massachusetts or Michigan governorships in November:

Priceless.

That could be the slogan for Democrats as they encourage the party faithful to vote with their wallets — specifically, by using a special MasterCard whose rewards are not frequent flyer miles, but rather campaign cash for state party coffers. So, just as some proud graduates flash credit cards bearing their university's name, loyal Democrats now can both exhibit their pride and help their party.

The Democratic credit card, available in 36 states, is a new twist in the never-ending quest for small-dollar political donations. While state party officials call it a good way for ordinary citizens to contribute, returns thus far have been modest. And an effort to launch a similar program for Republican organizations has fallen completely flat.

In Massachusetts, where Patrick is one of three candidates for the gubernatorial nomination, the state Democratic Party first offered the special credit card to members in 2004 through Delaware-based Juniper Bank — now owned by Barclays International of London. Juniper has more than 30 other affinity cards, giving consumers the chance to earn everything from a free handwarmer from Buckmasters sporting goods magazine to free miles from US Airways.

Investment banker Chris Gabrieli and state Attorney General Tom Reilly also are seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Massachusetts.

The state parties get an initial premium of either $20 or $40 when a new subscriber uses the card for the first time, depending on the individual's credit score. The party also gets slightly less than $1 for every $100 charged, according to a spokeswoman for Juniper.

The money that goes to the state party can be used as any other contribution and counts toward an individual's federal limit on campaign contributions.

In Michigan, where Democrats are trying to re-elect Granholm, nearly 400 cardholders have earned about $30,000 over two years and helped the party add a staffer, explained Mark Brewer, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party and president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs. While he acknowledged that the total falls short of magnificent, it represents cash the party otherwise might have not have received.

The Michigan Democratic Party raised more than $2.9 million during the 2004 election cycle, according to data from the Institute on Money in State Politics.

Brian Rothenberg, spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party, said the Master Card program is just another way parties are marketing themselves to voters and seeking to expand their base of small contributors.

While the Republican National Committee has launched an effort to attract donations of $50 or less, only two GOP state parties have tried to attract donations through a credit card rewards program, which has yet to issue a single card.

The Spend to Support Program, launched by a small corporation in Nevada, is advertised on the Web sites of the California and North Carolina Republican parties and offers applicants the opportunity to back their party by using a charge card.

But the company, Mohre Communications LLC, has yet to strike a deal with a credit card company, and no cards are yet available, said Richard Carrott, president of the company and its parent, Careau & Co, based in California.

"We haven't really gone out and started pushing it. There are some things we are still finalizing," Carrott told Stateline.org.

In 2002, Mohre tried to launch a plan to offer a cash reward for state parties whose members signed up for Internet service through the company. Although the Federal Election Commission approved the new fund-raising concept, Mohre never got it off the ground.

Ferrel Blount, chairman of the North Carolina GOP, was surprised that no card was being issued yet: He hadn't bothered to apply. "I've got enough credit cards already," he said.