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Democrats made a bet on Trump that just paid off — bigly

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has raised twice as much money online this year as they did in all of 2015, officials tell NBC News
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to the media on South Lawn of the White House in Washington
President Donald Trump talks to the media on South Lawn of the White House on Dec. 15.Yuri Gripas / Reuters

WASHINGTON — With two weeks to spare, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already raised twice as much money online this year as it did in 2015, officials said.

Online donors gave $40.46 million in 2017 as of Thursday morning, easily outperforming the $19.7 million raised online two years ago, the most recent non-presidential election year.

Many liberal and Democratic groups have seen a flood of donations since Trump's election. But the DCCC, whose apocalyptic fundraising emails reporters and political operatives love to hate, gave NBC News a rare look inside the mechanics of monetizing the Trump backlash.

A few days after the election, Julia Ager, the DCCC's digital director, and her team tentatively dipped their toes into the new uncharted political waters with a simple email asking supporters to sign a petition "to hold Republicans accountable."

In the rhetoric of Trump-era politics, the ask could not have been more generic.

Online fundraising has become a billion-dollar business in politics with reams of data to inform every little move. But like everyone else, Ager's crew had no idea how dispirited Democrats would react to Hillary Clinton's shocking defeat. So they watched and waited for the results.

"It immediately became clear from that email there'd be unprecedented engagement," Ager said.

Campaign committees often go deep into debt during an election and typically look to cut costs and layoff staff afterward. The DCCC was no exception, facing roughly $14 million in outstanding obligations.

But armed with the data from the early tests, Ager asked the committee's new executive director, Dan Sena, and its chairman, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., to take the peculiar step of spending millions of dollars upfront to build their email fundraising list in the hopes it would pay dividends later.

They approved the gamble, and the first ads went online a week after the election. By the end of March, the group had spent $2.5 million on email acquisition.

But a year later, the owners of those new email addresses have contributed $6.7 million and counting. Overall, the group has seen 256,585 new donors this year.

"It paid off massively," Ager said. "We took a bold strategy right after the election, and we feel this early investment is why we've been so successful."

To try to win the 24 seats Democrats need to retake the House next year, they're competing in more than 90 GOP-held districts, which will require lots of money.

Midterm elections typically don't excite the liberal base like presidential ones, but Trump has changed that.

Overall, including traditional giving, the DCCC raised $89 million as of the end of October, the most recent numbers available.

The House Republicans' campaign arm brought in $77 million over the same time, which is still strong for an off year, though they've been outraised in recent months. They have not released online fundraising details.

The DCCC's fundraising success is hardly an outlier for Democrats and left-leaning interest groups. But it shows once again that Trump, while bad for Democrats' policy agenda, has been good for their campaign coffers.