In a year of record-setting campaign fundraising and spending, driven largely by contributions from corporations, unions, third-party groups and dozens of self-financed millionaire candidates, the small-scale individual donor is also proving to be a formidable force.
A snapshot of Federal Election Commission (FEC) campaign finance data compiled by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, and reviewed by ABC News, shows that of the more than $731 million raised so far by more than a thousand candidates for the U.S. House, nearly 10 percent came from donors giving no more than $200 total.
Candidates in races involving high-profile Tea Party-endorsed candidates, some of whom have a virtual lock on reelection, top the list of grassroots fundraisers.
The findings offer a striking illustration of the political engagement sparked by the Tea Party this election season and demonstrate that the recession has not diminished small-scale political fundraising in many congressional races.
South Carolina Republican and Tea Party-favorite Rep. Joe Wilson, whose reelection appears all but certain, has collected more than $2.6 million, or 65 percent, of his total campaign war chest directly from donors each giving less than $200 total – more than any other candidate.
Wilson's Democratic opponent, Robert Miller, who ranks sixth on the list, collected $1.6 million, or 63 percent, of his campaign funds in the form of small contributions.
In Minnesota, Republican Rep. Michelle Bachmann, who founded the House Tea Party Caucus, ranks third, and her challenger, Democrat Tarryl Clark, ranks ninth. Allen West, a Tea Party-backed challenger in Florida's 22nd congressional district, and House Minority Leader John Boehner are also in the top 10.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who ranks 813 on the list, has raised less than one percent of her total campaign funds from small-scale individual donors.
But her Tea Party-backed Republican challenger, John Dennis, has raised 64 percent of his campaign cash from small-scale donors. And Dennis' GOP primary opponent, Dana Walsh, raised 84 percent of her $1.9 million from contributions of no more than $200 each, ranking her fourth overall.
Tea Party Donors Not Hindered by Recession
Because of the Tea Party, "it's easier for people in those races to draw national attention," said Brendan Glavin of the Campaign Finance Institute.
Wilson burst onto the national stage in January when he yelled 'you lie' during President Obama's address before a joint session of Congress on health care reform. Criticism of the outburst later helped to galvanize Wilson supporters around the country who began contributing to his campaign.
And candidates are doing what they can to tap into that enthusiasm. "Wilson and other candidates are taking online contributions, so now when bloggers write about their campaigns they can post a link and people can easily give," said Glavin.
Sal Russo, strategist for the Tea Party Express, said the findings also reflect the Tea Party's mobilization of a previously politically unengaged segment of the population.
"When people get really upset, they get involved in politics for the first time," he said. "These people do not see this as discretionary spending. ... For these people it's not about, 'Ah, should we contribute this year to the annual charity ball?' No, this is about standing up for our country and this is important for their future and children's future."
While it's still too early to draw definitive conclusions on the size and impact of grassroots fundraising in this election cycle, the robust political fundraising seen among individual voters this year does contrast with consumer cutbacks on other spending. Americans' average daily discretionary spending has dropped 13 percent since May, according to Gallup, and charitable giving has also been declining sharply.
The latest FEC data shows the 2010 congressional election cycle is on track to be the most expensive in history, with candidates in House and Senate races combined collecting more than $1.2 billion so far.