How Marjorie Taylor Greene Raises Money by Attacking Other Republicans

TMI Newsdesk
17 Min Read

When Marjorie Taylor Greene first entered politics, she was hardly a natural at fund-raising. She was the owner of a CrossFit gym—and a construction company that was founded by her father—before she successfully ran for a congressional seat in rural Georgia in 2020. To help fund her campaign, Greene put up about $1.4 million of her own money. Then, almost as soon as she had won, a national scandal broke out about her long record of bizarre, violent, and antisemitic statements: she had promoted a call for “a bullet to the head” of then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; mused about the hanging of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama; praised the QAnon conspiracy theory; asserted that the Jewish investor George Soros was actually a Nazi; and blamed California wildfires on “space lasers” funded by the Rothschilds.

That’s when the money started pouring in. In a repudiation of Greene’s inflammatory statements, members of Congress voted to strip her of her committee assignments—traditionally, a lawmaker’s main calling cards for seeking campaign donations—but Greene found that no trouble at all. Instead, she cashed in on the outrage of her fellow-lawmakers by making a torrent of online appeals to MAGA voters. “Never before has a Republican been under attack like me since the Democrats tried to impeach and remove President Trump from office,” one of her fund-raising e-mails declared. “And without your support, I have no way of defending myself.” In the first quarter of 2021, she raised a staggering $3.2 million, with an average donation of thirty-two dollars.

Now Greene has again reclaimed the limelight by repeatedly vowing to oust Speaker Mike Johnson. She is faulting him for, among other things, reaching spending agreements with the Democrats, who control the Senate and the White House, and allowing a House vote that approved sixty-one billion dollars in additional aid to help Ukraine fend off Russia’s invasion. And she is once more unleashing a barrage of online appeals for campaign money. In a recent e-mail, she blared that “Speaker Johnson is a sellout” and declared herself “sick and tired of watching our so-called ‘conservative’ Speaker bend the knee to the communist Democrats.”

Exactly how much Greene reaps from such appeals will become clear when her campaign files its next quarterly finance report. But Capitol Hill veterans say that her noisy campaign against Johnson—which has made her a fixture on Fox News for weeks, with no end in sight—is impossible to understand without considering her financial incentives. Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who has been a top spokesperson for Republican leaders in the House and the Senate, told me that campaign fund-raising was “a huge angle” behind Greene’s public dissents. “It is an opportunity for her to raise a lot of money very quickly,” he said. “And when you are standing in the spotlight, repeatedly, for throwing a wrench in the works of the Republican leadership—throwing a wrench in the works of something that is clearly going to happen anyway—it is very clear that that is not about principle. It is about campaign money.”

A spokesperson for Greene said that the congresswoman declined to comment. But scholars of the campaign-finance system say that the course of Greene’s drive to oust Johnson—like much of her political career—reflects larger trends that have pushed politicians in both major parties toward the extremes.

Since at least the nineteen-seventies, proponents of campaign-finance reform have dreamed of forcing politicians to rely more on small contributions from individual citizens, imagining that such donors, in aggregate, might counterbalance the influence of the wealthy élite and corporate interests. But no campaign-finance rule advanced that goal as effectively as the advent of the Internet. This shift first became evident in the Presidential campaigns of two Democrats—Howard Dean, in 2004, and Barack Obama, in 2008—and later played a major role in the Republican campaign of Donald Trump, in 2016. Social media made it cheaper and easier than ever for candidates to target messages to individual voters. And fund-raising Web sites such as ActBlue and WinRed slashed the overhead costs of harvesting millions of dollars in small increments, one click at a time. One study found that the total number of individual political donations grew from 5.2 million in 2006 to a hundred and ninety-five million in 2020, and the average size of those contributions fell from $292.10 to $59.70.

Yet this democratization of political giving had an effect that the reformers never imagined. After all, voters who are moved by a viral video to make an instant donation are often among the most partisan. The new system tended to reward the most strident and ideologically extreme candidates on the left or the right, which deepened the polarization of American politics. In 2009, when the Republican congressman Joe Wilson shattered decorum by shouting “You lie!” at Obama during an address to Congress, conservative donors immediately showered Wilson’s campaign with a million dollars in small donations. And Greene, who has developed a habit of interrupting addresses by Joe Biden, is the House Republican with the highest proportion of contributions that are less than two hundred dollars. In the current cycle, such donations represent seventy-seven per cent of the $4.4 million she has raised—for an uncompetitive race in a safely Republican district. Her equivalent on the left is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has received more of her money from small donors than any Democratic member of the House—they make up seventy per cent of the $6.6 million she has raised in this election cycle.

Richard Pildes, a professor at the New York University School of Law, told me, “The more extreme the position taken, the more provocative the stance, the more outrageous the claim, then the more viral attention gets generated. And that in turn unleashes a torrent of small donations.”

At the same time, changes to campaign-finance laws have greatly restricted contributions to both major parties, whose financial power once deterred unruly members from disruptive stunts like threatening to oust a congressional leader in the run-up to an election. And a series of court rulings in the past fifteen years has instead opened the floodgates of political spending by outside groups, which can often collect unlimited sums from undisclosed donors. Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School, told me, “The most unaccountable and extremist actors in the system have the easiest time raising and spending funds, whereas the most accountable actors, who are closest to governance, operate under the greatest restrictions.” In that sense, he said, “we live in the worst of all possible worlds.”

A political economy where controversy means cash is one where Greene—like Trump, her hero and patron—has thrived. Not long after taking office, she hired Ed Buckham, a master at turning aggressive fund-raising into political power, as her chief of staff. Two decades earlier, Buckham had helped Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, climb to the role of House Majority Leader. With Buckham as his top adviser, DeLay first made his mark by railing against his party’s leaders from the right, just as Greene does now. Then he and Buckham built the preëminent fund-raising machine of their day. DeLay used campaign money to wield power over his fellow-Republicans, and his hardball tactics earned him the nickname the Hammer. Both men were ultimately tarred by the enormous corruption scandal around the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which helped force DeLay from office in 2006. But neither DeLay nor Buckham were charged with any crime linked to Abramoff.

When Greene brought Buckham back to the Capitol, in 2021, she told the Washington Examiner that he “has had more experience in the swamp, so to speak, probably than most people working on the Hill right now, and I need that wisdom and experience on my team to achieve what I’m looking to do.” She added, “I’m not afraid of the controversy.” (DeLay recently told Talking Points Memo that Greene was smart to hire his former chief of staff. “He taught me everything I know,” DeLay said.)

Greene was initially a member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, but in the summer of 2023 the group expelled her because of her pattern of attacking her conservative colleagues. She pivoted by cultivating an unlikely strategic alliance with then Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who had struggled to win the allegiance of hard-liners like her. DeLay told Talking Points Memo that Greene’s support of McCarthy appeared strategic: “She wanted to be a real player. . . . she knew—or somehow somebody told her—that she needed to grab ahold of his coattails and support him.” DeLay added that he saw Buckham’s fingerprints “all over her.”

But McCarthy, in a bargain to win the Speakership, had agreed to a House rule change that would allow a single member to file a motion to “vacate the chair,” and it became his undoing. Last fall, Matt Gaetz spearheaded an ultraconservative rebellion that toppled McCarthy over his agreement to compromise with the Democrats. In appeals for support, Gaetz presented himself as a true believer who was forcing the Party to keep faith with its base, and in the following quarter he hauled in seven hundred thousand dollars more in small donations than he had in the previous period, roughly doubling his total fund-raising.

In a speech on the House floor, Garret Graves, a McCarthy loyalist, accused Gaetz of cynically bringing down the Speaker for his own political profit. “ ‘Give me money, I filed a motion to vacate!’ ” Graves said, holding up his phone to display a fund-raising text from the Gaetz campaign. “Using official actions to raise money. It’s disgusting. It’s what’s disgusting about Washington.”

Just three months later, Greene began verbally threatening to file a motion to remove McCarthy’s replacement, Mike Johnson. The Speaker’s putative offense was reaching a top-line budget deal with the Democrats that was substantially the same as the one that McCarthy had agreed to a few months earlier (when Greene had defended him). She filed the initial paperwork teeing up a motion in March, when Johnson led the House to approve a package of spending bills. (“Mike Johnson just railroaded Chuck Schumer’s $1.2 TRILLION Democrat wishlist through the House and now it’ll surely be signed into law,” Greene declared, in an online fund-raising pitch. “This is an attack on the American people. . . . I need to know now more than ever if you still have my back.”)

Although Greene gave multiple interviews about her threat, she declined to take the additional step of escalating her motion to “privileged” status, which would have forced an immediate up-or-down vote on Johnson’s continuation as Speaker. She initially said that she would await Johnson’s decision on aid to Ukraine, which she and a faction of other conservatives opposed on “America First” grounds. But, in April, Johnson effectively called her bluff by pushing ahead on Ukraine. Now Greene has said that she is postponing carrying out her threat until some indefinite point when Republicans coalesce around an alternative leader—a scenario that is highly unlikely to occur before the next election, given that it took the Party three weeks of turmoil to settle on Johnson. In an interview on Fox News on April 21st, Greene said that Johnson should resign “and allow us to move forward in a controlled process,” and she repeated her now months-old warning: “If he doesn’t do so, he will be vacated.”

Some Republicans believe that Greene may be enjoying dangling a threat over Johnson for a prolonged period without resolution, in part because it keeps her in the news. Bonjean, the Republican strategist, told me, “She knows that the more people she pisses off, the more attention she is going to get, and the more money is going to come her way from the people that agree with her.”

Johnson, though, looks increasingly confident, perhaps in part because he now has the public backing of Trump. The former President wields enormous influence with the “America First” Republicans most likely to back Greene’s motion, and in recent weeks he has twice publicly praised Johnson and rebuffed Greene’s calls for his exit. Republican lawmakers are showing signs of impatience with Greene, too. In a recent interview with Newsmax, Greg Murphy, a North Carolina Republican whose office is down the hall from Greene’s, called her motion to vacate “asinine,” noting, “I just got a text not thirty minutes ago from Marjorie saying, ‘I’m wanting to raise money on this.’ ” Matt Gaetz, Murphy went on, had raised campaign money “the whole time he was creating chaos” with his motion to vacate McCarthy, adding, “This is not what adults in the room are supposed to do.”

Still, Greene’s fund-raising prowess is also a reason for Johnson and other House Republicans to stay on her good side. In the past two election cycles, she has transferred more than seven hundred thousand dollars of her own campaign money to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to help elect lawmakers in competitive races. She has also given tens of thousands in direct payments to other campaigns. And, Trump’s grumbling aside, she shows no signs of letting up her fund-raising drumbeat—no matter how unlikely removing Johnson before November might seem. In a fund-raising e-mail on April 24th, Greene declared, “Ever since I took a stand to hold Speaker Johnson accountable, I have been getting pummeled from all sides. Even by members of my own party.” She added, “I urgently need help fighting back against this sinister plot, and I fear that if we fail, nobody in Congress will stand up to the Swamp.” ♦

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Greene’s congressional district.

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