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Tea Partyers Shredded Fundraising Playbook

Christine O’Donnell raised $62,575 in her first Senate campaign. Four years later, the 41-year old Delaware media consultant raised $7.3 million, shattering her previous effort by more than 10,000 percent while rewriting the book on “nontraditional” campaign fundraising in 2010.

An incomplete batch of campaign finance records released in recent days tells a similar story in Senate contests across the nation, where a handful of little-known conservative darlings in Colorado, Nevada and Alaska destroyed fundraising expectations and — whether they won or lost ­— likely cemented the tea party’s political power for at least the next two years.

“A lot of the tea party candidates developed a philosophical, ideological constituency, well beyond their geographic constituency,” said Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics. “When you grow bigger than your political borders, you suddenly have the advantage of attracting cash from every corner of the country.”

Most of O’Donnell’s haul came from outside the state. That was also the case for Colorado’s Ken Buck, who upset the Republican establishment’s hand-picked GOP challenger in an August primary before falling to Sen. Michael Bennet (D) in the general election.

In the losing bid, Buck raised $4.7 million, nearly 90 percent coming from individual donors, many from outside of Colorado. Almost $1.2 million, or one-quarter of all his receipts, were donations of less than $200, according to his most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission that covers the period through Election Day.

In Alaska’s roller-coaster Senate contest, tea party favorite Joe Miller raised more than $3 million during the cycle, with more than 92 percent coming from individuals. He finished the most recent filing period, Oct. 14 to Nov. 22, with nearly $980,000 in the bank, money almost certainly being diverted to his ongoing legal fight against Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was declared the winner in a historic write-in bid. But it’s unclear whether Miller left money on the table that could have gone to better use.

Some tea party candidates couldn’t spend their money fast enough.

Less than a week before Election Day, O’Donnell had trouble finding a place to air a 24-minute campaign documentary soon after her shocking GOP primary victory over Rep. Mike Castle. The cost of the massive buy wasn’t the problem; it was simply finding an outlet with an open time slot. The ad ultimately ran on a public access station and a local Fox affiliate.

Desperate to harness their surprising fundraising power, some conservatives hired additional consultants to help shape spending strategies amid an erratic flood of national donations. Republicans had seen this just a handful of times in recent years as Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and Florida Rep.-elect Allen West saw money pour in from across the country for their candidacies. Only Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential bid had tapped into the magnitude of the fundraising possibilities that opened to tea party favorites in 2010.

O’Donnell’s campaign hired Carolyn Machado, a principal at Machado & Co., a month and a half before Election Day to help project cash flows.

“She went from raising no money to lightning in a bottle very quickly, and needed to move very quickly on harnessing that and organizing that,” Machado said of what she calls the tea party’s “nontraditional” fundraising model.

The old model, which involved campaign finance committees and house parties, didn’t apply in these races. Instead, Internet donations skyrocketed and even shut down websites thanks to tea party groups organizing online and media appearances. Traditional phone and some direct-mail requests didn’t hurt.

For Machado and other consultants, the art of predicting cash receipts following a candidate appearance on Fox News or on conservative talk radio became a science, something broken down by 12-hour periods. Strong internet donations generally persisted through the first two 12-hour blocks following an appearance on Fox’s Sean Hannity or radio’s Rush Limbaugh, before falling off.

Some candidates were reluctant to trust the newfound stream of donations.

O’Donnell, for example, hoped to save roughly $650,000 in her campaign account to help defend against lawsuits ­— the same type of campaign-related suits that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) often complained of. Uncertain that the donations would continue through the election, O’Donnell actually finished the quarter with $925,000 in the bank and virtually no debt.

But successful fundraising didn’t necessarily produce political success for O’Donnell or the other tea party picks.

O’Donnell lost her contest against Democrat Chris Coons by more than 16 points. Buck and Nevada Republican nominee Sharron Angle ultimately lost closer contests, and Miller is likely to lose his challenge in Alaska.

“When Sharron Angle appears on Sean Hannity, there’s a dollar amount attached to that,” said Gene Ulm, a principal at the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies. “But you have to say things that appeal to the base, rather than a large chunk of independents. It’s not the same message.”

Angle’s report had not been filed as of Monday afternoon.

Despite the political pitfalls, conservatives are already shaping plans to use the new fundraising model in the near future.

The Tea Party Patriots, for example, actively encouraged their member base to volunteer and contribute to conservative candidates throughout 2010. They will announce related plans in the coming weeks.

“You’re going to see that power and money shift from politics to policy,” spokesman Randy Lewis said. “And over the next two years, you’re going to see the Tea Party Patriots become a much more dominant public policy organization. You’ll see that money and that organizational power become a public policy power.”

Rachael Bade contributed to this report.

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