A paradigm shift in political fundraising is playing out across the 2018 midterms landscape.
In a large number of congressional races throughout the country, Democratic candidates are raising gobs of cash for their own campaigns—in the process, shedding the necessity of national party groups for financial aid. The success of this strategy has been fueled by unparalleled enthusiasm on the left, wins in smaller legislative contests, and the increased prevalence of online fundraising platforms like ActBlue.
In February 2018 alone, that fundraising service helped campaigns and candidates raise $59,511,643, with an average contribution size of $37.06. That figure was $1 million more than ActBlue accumulated in February of 2016, a presidential election year.
“Smaller donors can equal motivated volunteers,” J. Tucker Martin, a Virginia-based Republican consultant told The Daily Beast. “And that matters a lot. The early Democratic fundraising advantage is really just another log on the pile of evidence that there is a wave building on their side. Which is undeniable right now.”
The flow of fundraising money directly to the candidates could have a profound impact on everything from how the respective parties prioritize their resources, to midterm messaging, to what seats end up most competitive in November. It’s not without risk for the broader Democratic Party. But there is already some evidence that the new paradigm will pay off.
During the first financial quarter of 2018, there were at least 58 GOP-held seats in which a Democratic challenger raised more than the Republican incumbent, according to an analysis from the Cook Political Report. The reverse scenario happened in only six Democratic-held seats. Additionally, at least a dozen Republican members also trail in terms of the cash they have on hand. Democrats would need to win a net 24 seats to flip the majority in the House of Representatives, less than half of those in which they have raised more money.
All of which is not to say that Republicans are in dire financial straits. Far from it. So far, GOP groups have more than enough money to bolster any anemic fundraising candidates. The National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee had raised more than $105 million by the end of February this year and the Republican National Committee raised more than $157 million. Meanwhile the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised more than $125 million and the Democratic National Committee, which has struggled to raise money of late, had more than $81 million. Conservative super PACs, likewise, have largely outpaced their liberal counterparts in terms of both fundraising and spending on races up to this point.
The DCCC emphasized the action they're taking to boost candidate money as a long-term goal. “Candidates are our best asset and we’ve been very intentional in building a support system to elevate and empower grassroots Democrats," DCCC national press secretary Tyler Law said. "From a tactical standpoint, campaign dollars certainly go a lot farther than outside groups. But most importantly, we want candidates telling their own stories and bringing their message directly to voters, not relying on outside groups to prop them up.”
But nationally generated funding pools aren’t always as effective as locally generated ones. Television stations charge much higher ad rates to super PACs and political committees than they do to actual campaigns—meaning that a candidate’s dollar can go further. And while a party apparatus can help save a candidate under siege, it can also destroy his or her chances by pulling out its resources.
“Obviously national committees have to make decisions for the good of the order,” said Martin. “They’re going to be focused on preserving majorities; not looking out for personalities. For them it’s a math equation. And less money to spend on more races leads to tough, pragmatic, decisions having to be made.”
So far, GOP committees and PACs have shown a willingness to spend on virtually everyone (save some hesitation toward an alleged pedophile running for Senate in Alabama). In a recent special election in Pennsylvania, Republican candidate Rick Saccone did not come close to matching the fundraising numbers his opponent, Conor Lamb. But the Congressional Leadership Fund, a PAC closely aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), and NRCC spent millions on his behalf, despite it being a district President Trump won by nearly 20 points. Lamb ended up winning by a small margin.
In an upcoming special election for a safe Arizona seat, the RNC has invested at least $281,250 as Democratic candidate Hiral Tipirneni has out-raised her Republican opponent Debbie Lesko.
At this stage, Republican groups are not sweating the need to spend in districts that once seemed like sure bets. And perhaps for good reason. At the end of the first fundraising quarter in 2018, the CLF had $25 million on hand. They also made a $48 million investment in television and digital ads for the fall this week, after Ryan announced his retirement.
“I don’t think one party is going to have a significant edge over each other,” a Republican House campaign operative, requesting to speak on background, told The Daily Beast. “We’ll have the money to compete where we want to compete.”
But others in the party are fearful that if they are forced to play defense in dozens of districts where their candidates are being out-raised, they could ultimately run up against an issue of finite resources. Raising money, after all, is a resource intensive process itself. And if a Democratic candidate can do it largely online, a Republican candidate or committee would be disadvantaged in having to host fundraisers, place calls, or beg for bucks through other mechanisms.
“It’s hard to put out fires everywhere if in fact there are something like 75 Republican seats in play,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics told The Daily Beast, referring to Republican efforts to play defense. “Incumbents in safe seats aren’t doing the national party any favor by slacking off on their fundraising.”
Not all elements of the new fundraising paradigm are great for Democrats, however. Though individual candidates are pulling in massive amounts of cash, the inability of the party committees to match their Republican counterparts means that more campaigns will be on their own for survival. That may be fine for those candidates running in swing districts, many of whom have recoiled at being associated with the national party. But air cover in a tight race is still vital. And the diminished presence of the national committees also means that there is less message-cohesion from the party across the congressional races.
Republicans, meanwhile, believe that crowded primaries on the Democratic side will force candidates to not just move farther to the left in order to appeal to primary voters but also spend their resources early.
“House Democratic candidates in competitive districts all throughout the country are going to be forced to spend an enormous amount of money informing voters of how progressive they are just to be able to capture the Democratic nomination,” Jesse Hunt, spokesman for the NRCC said in a statement. “The positions they’ll take and resources they’ll expend will render them unelectable when it comes time for the general election.”
Perhaps the best evidence GOP leadership has when downplaying the early fundraising advantages for Democratic candidates, is that money doesn’t always correlate with electoral success. That was certainly true to anyone who observed Democrat Jon Ossoff’s failed 2017 bid in Georgia’s special House election, when he spent tens of millions only to lose by less than three points.
But even that was a bit of a pyrrhic victory for Republicans, as the district was rated R+8 and has sent a Republican to Congress since 1979. And as the party charts out an already difficult midterm climate, they will soon be forced to make a whole new set of calculations, based on a diffuse but successful Democratic fundraising operation.
“Democrats are out-raising a number of Republican incumbents for reasons connected to Democratic successes at the ballot box already this cycle—chiefly, that Democratic voters and grassroots donors are just more engaged this cycle than Republicans,” Carolyn Fiddler, political editor at the liberal outfit Daily Kos told The Daily Beast.