With the midterm elections less than three weeks away, several top Democratic senators are sitting on millions of dollars in campaign cash. While some of it will reach other candidates and committees, leading operatives expect much of it to remain untapped and fret that, as a result, the party won’t take full advantage of the ripe political climate.
At the top of the list are two of the party’s highest-profile members: Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren.
Senate Minority Leader Schumer’s (D-NY) campaign committee has more than $9.5 million in cash on hand, according to the most recent filings. During past election cycles, Schumer—who isn’t up for re-election until 2022—has made large-scale, late-in-cycle transfers from his campaign to candidates and committees. But so far this year his campaign has transferred just $1,000 to the New York State Democratic Rural Conference.
Schumer has contributed in other ways. An aide to the senator noted that Schumer had helped raise more money for Senate Democrats than any other figure in the party and that he had used his leadership Political Action Committee (an entity separate from his campaign) to donate $730,000 to a combination of state parties, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and individual candidates.
“Senator Schumer has led an unprecedented fundraising effort that has allowed Democrats to more than keep pace with the millions coming in from the Koch brothers and right-wing donors,” said Schumer spokesman Matt House.
But others in the party felt he could be more generous with his giving, noting that Schumer, like others sitting on campaign cash, has years to restock his campaign war chest should he choose spend it in the election’s closing days.
“It’s the question of do you have to, versus would it be better for the party if you did. The answer for the first may be no but the answer for the second would definitely be yes,” said one top party operative who, like the roughly dozen individuals interviewed for this article, refused to utter a negative word about Schumer on the record. “He could choose to not spread it around but that’s a selfish thing to do.”
Most members of Congress, including those with deep-pocketed campaign committees like Schumer, do give to their colleagues and other elected officials through leadership PACs or by hosting events or sending fundraising emails. But unlike Schumer, many Senate Democrats have also chosen to dip into their personal campaign accounts to back Democrats’ midterm efforts.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has even more cash on hand than Schumer. Running an uncompetitive reelection campaign in 2018, she currently has more than $15 million in the bank. She also has her eye on a 2020 run for the White House and could, under the law, move unspent funds from her Senate race into a presidential bid.
Warren has made substantial transfers of money to other candidates and committees. Filings show more than $1.19 million in PAC contributions and more than $90,000 in campaign committee contributions to entities like the Democratic Party of Massachusetts, Democratic Senate colleagues Bob Menendez and Tammy Baldwin, and Texas Senate hopeful Beto O’Rourke, among others.
Those totals will grow larger this fall. An aide to the Massachusetts Democrat said that the next campaign finance filing will show her transferring $1.33 million of her campaign pot to other committees and state parties. Recipients will include the Iowa Democratic Party, the South Carolina Democratic Party and the Nevada Democratic Party—all states that play a critical role in the 2020 primaries.
The question of how candidates are allocating their campaign cash has become paramount as the November elections draws to a close. The debate was kicked off last week, when Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) reported raising an eye-popping $38 million during the third quarter of 2018. The figure shattered fundraising records and led a small group of Democratic officials to wonder if the money would be better used on closer races. O’Rourke trails Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) by a small but consistent margin in public opinion polls.
Republicans, meanwhile, have signalled their own dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump, whose re-election campaign is flush with resources even as candidates in his own party struggle to hang on for re-election this cycle.
For Democrats, the problem is less severe. Officials at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) said that cash was not a major problem for their candidates, most of whom have been bolstered by a robust and steady flow of grassroots support. But elsewhere, party officials have conceded that money could help tilt the tide in down-ballot seats, where Democrats suffered massive losses during the Barack Obama years.
Carolyn Fiddler, formerly the director at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, noted that in the Colorado State Senate, Democrats have to flip one seat in order to take the chamber. “Twenty thousand dollars could go a lot further there than in a U.S. Senate race,” Fiddler told The Daily Beast. “It is always a worthwhile effort to raise money for state legislative candidates because the return on investment is precisely so high there.” Underscoring that return on investment, the progressive politics firm Data for Progress announced a campaign this week to give funds to eight state Senate candidates that it deemed crucial to the balance of power in their states. Since its launch on Tuesday, the effort has raised over $300,000.
Online fundraising is one way to pool critical resources. Another is to shift money around the party, especially from places where it may not be essential or needed.
A Daily Beast review of the filings for the campaigns of the 49 senators who caucus with the Democratic Party shows that the 22 up for election in either 2020 or 2022 are sitting on a combined $47.8 million in cash.
And it’s not just elected members who have gobs of cash in hand; some Democrats who have left office or failed to win a seat do, too. Evan Bayh, the former Democratic senator from Indiana, still has over $1 million in his principal campaign committee.
Many Democratic senators currently in office have sent transfers to committees, state and local candidates, and political organizations during this cycle. That includes $100,000 from Ron Wyden (OR), $90,600 from Patrick Leahy (VT), $20,700 from Brian Schatz (HI), and $15,000 each from Kamala Harris (CA) and Tammy Duckworth (IL) to the DSCC.
But other Democrats who aren’t up for reelection this year have not transferred any campaign money, including Dick Durbin (IL), who has $1.68 million cash on hand for his 2020 run; Richard Blumenthal (CT), who has $3.1 million on hand for his 2022 run; and Mark Warner (VA), who has more than $2.69 million on hand. Instead, like Schumer, they have used their leadership PACs to make donations to fellow Democrats, with Durbin’s Prairie PAC doling out $575,000 this cycle, Blumenthal’s Nutmeg PAC $343,000, and Warner’s Forward Together PAC $440,000.
At the federal level, a candidates can transfer $2,000 to another candidates, and PACs $5,000, per election cycle—so $4,000 and $10,000, respectively, between a single cycle’s primary and general elections. But candidates can give unlimited sums to state and federal party committees. Many members of Congress also bring in funds by way of joint fundraising committees. Individual contributors to those committees are subject to the same contribution limits that govern direct contributions to candidates, but they are a common way for one candidate to assist another’s fundraising.
Making these types of campaign fund transfers is not always expected. Donors, after all, give money to politicians out of an expectation that the money will be used on that specific election—a point stressed by those who defended O’Rourke.
“His donors chose to give their hard-earned money to him, and he should honor that choice by using the money the way they intended instead of giving it to people they could have but chose not to give their money to,” said Democratic operative Dan Riffle. “As Beto is showing, now you can speak to the needs of regular working people, and they will power your campaign. If other Democrats need money, they should follow Beto’s lead and support policies that are popular with regular people, like Medicare for All, and get a small-dollar haul of their own.”
A candidate who transfers his or her money also will—by definition—have less to spend on himself or herself. Even lawmakers who are not up for re-election for several years are eager to have large cash reserves at the start of that campaign, if only to dissuade other potential candidates from challenging him or her.
Several Democratic senators have hinted at their interest in running for the White House in 2020. Those include New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), who has the second most cash on hand of any current Democratic senator, with $10.7 million, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, with $8.8 million, New Jersey’s Cory Booker with $4.1 million, and California’s Harris with $1.7 million.
Those potential candidates’ degrees of generosity vary widely. Like Schumer, the Gillibrand campaign’s only transfer to another political committee this cycle is a $1,000 donation to the New York State Democratic Rural Conference. Also like Schumer, her giving has occurred mostly through her leadership PAC, which has transferred $467,000 to other federal committees. She has also worked to recruit candidates, especially women, and has helped incubate so-called “giving circles,” networks of fundraisers that support female elected officials and candidates.
But perhaps the most surprising donation of the potential 2020 candidates came from Sanders. Last May, the senator, who has declined to associate as a Democrat and who has bickered in the past with top party officials, had his campaign committee write a $100,000 check to, of all places, the Democratic National Committee.