Democratic candidates for Congress are crushing their Republican counterparts in small-dollar donations—outraising their GOP foes by an average of more than $100,000 per candidate in the nation’s top races.
That’s the finding of a new National Journal analysis of federal records in the most competitive House contests in the country. In those, the average Democrat has collected $179,300 in donations under $200; the average Republican has brought in only $78,535.
“That,” said Vincent Harris, a Republican digital strategist, “is a big deal.”
It has been widely reported that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has lapped the National Republican Congressional Committee when it comes to small donations. The DCCC has outraised the NRCC by more than $41 million in donations under $200 this cycle, much of it collected online. But the National Journal analysis of federal records shows for the first time the extent to which the enormous edge the DCCC has built through online and small-dollar fundraising has also trickled down to local candidates.
The small-donor gap is consistent and persistent in red states and blue ones, between incumbents of both parties and challengers alike. In California, Democratic Rep. Ami Bera has outraised his GOP opponent, former Rep. Doug Ose, in small contributions, $215,000 to $26,600. In Florida, Democratic challenger Gwen Graham has outpaced her Republican opponent, Rep. Steve Southerland, $367,000 to $120,000 in small-money giving.
All told, Democratic candidates hold 37 of the top 50 spots when ranking total small-dollar fundraising in top targeted House races across the country. This edge is all the more remarkable given a 2014 political climate in which Democrats are saddled with an unpopular president and sagging enthusiasm among their activist base.
For this analysis, National Journal looked at House candidates and incumbents who were in the most competitive seats, as ranked by The Cook Political Report (those in the “toss-up” and “lean” categories), and those highly touted by the party committees (those in the DCCC’s Red to Blue program or the NRCC’s Young Guns). The review tallied candidates’ “unitemized contributions”—those under $200—as reported to the Federal Election Commission. Those few candidates who itemize every, or nearly every, contribution were excluded. The fundraising figures for all 99 candidates in the analysis are the latest available from the FEC, which for most of them is through June 30.
The findings were stark. In total, the 48 Democrats in the analysis outraised the 51 Republicans in small-dollar donations, $8.6 million to $4 million.
“This is just one more example of how our digital superiority is helping to put Democratic candidates in a strong position in a challenging climate,” said DCCC spokesman Josh Schwerin.
The chasm between the parties was largest when comparing Democrats and Republicans who are not already in Congress. On average, small donors accounted for 13.8 percent of the total money raised by nonincumbent Democrats in these top-tier races. Among Republicans, the figure was only 7.6 percent.
Because a huge share of smaller contributions is now collected online, strategists for both parties said the DCCC’s years-long head start in digital operations accounts for most of the financial advantage.
“I know that the NRCC has a bigger digital staff and they’re a very proactive digital operation this cycle—it has definitely surpassed anywhere where the NRCC has been previously,” Harris said. “But I definitely still think that the infrastructure of Democratic campaigns, especially down at the House level, is more sophisticated [digitally].”
Another GOP digital strategist, who requested anonymity to speak more candidly about his party’s shortcomings, said the gap among nonincumbents was particularly telling. “First-time candidates always look to the national committee for training and advice,” the strategist said. “Clearly, the training and advice given by the Democrats has been more effective than the training and advice given by the Republicans.”
A third Republican strategist familiar with the NRCC’s digital work said one problem is that many House GOP candidates are failing to heed the committee’s advice when it comes to investing early in online operations. “Many are still leaving money on the table as they haven’t made the infrastructure investments they need to,” the operative said.
In the 39 seats in the analysis that included both a Democratic and Republican candidate, the Democrat outraised the Republican in small donations in 31 of them—often by huge margins. In Arizona’s 1st District, for instance, Democratic incumbent Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick has raised nearly $420,000 in small donations. Her Republican opponent, Andy Tobin, has raised about one-tenth of that in such contributions, or $42,600.
The influx of small donors into House Democratic campaigns matters in numerous ways. Candidates get better prices on TV ads than outside groups, meaning every dollar collected by them is worth more. The direct infusion of money also allows the Democratic candidates to better control the messaging of their race, rather than be buffeted by the spending and agenda of outside groups.
Perhaps as important, according to Will Bunnett, who worked on the online team of President Obama’s 2008 campaign and is now a digital strategist at Trilogy Interactive, is that small donors often become the foundation of a campaign’s volunteer team.
“Once they’ve actually plunked down some of their own money, they’re much more likely to come out and knock on some doors and make some phone calls,” Bunnett said.
Among Democrats in the analysis, the top small-contributor fundraiser is Andrew Romanoff, a Democratic challenger who is taking on Republican Rep. Mike Coffman in a swing district in suburban Denver. Romanoff has raised $833,527 in small-dollar money, more than 24 percent of his total fundraising. No one else in a targeted race has even raised $500,000.
Romanoff is helped by the fact that he previously ran for Senate, meaning he entered the House race with a far larger network of email addresses and supporters than most. A spokeswoman said more than 15,000 people have donated to his campaign.
Coffman himself has raised $393,261 in small donations—fifth-most in the analysis—and that accounts for 11.7 percent of his fundraising haul. Romanoff and Coffman are locked in what many expect to be the priciest House race in the nation.
On the Republican side, the top small-dollar fundraiser is Ryan Zinke, an outspoken former Navy SEAL who once called Hillary Clinton the “Antichrist.” But Zinke has benefited from an unusual arrangement to land himself in the top spot, raising $441,000 in small donations, 27.5 percent of his overall haul—the highest figure of all 99 candidates in the analysis.
It turns out Zinke created an anti-Obama super PAC in 2012 and built a list of small donors there until he resigned in September 2013—only weeks before he launched his congressional campaign. He handed the super PAC reins to a fellow Montanan and former SEAL who almost immediately launched a Draft Zinke movement and directed its supporters to donate. The move—which Mother Jones described as akin to comedian Stephen Colbert handing off control of his super PAC to Jon Stewart and then announcing he was running for president (Stewart renamed it the “The Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC”)—appears legal. It’s impossible to say how many of Zinke’s small donors came from the super PAC as they are not individually itemized.
“The true reason behind the support Ryan has received is his record of exemplary service to his country,” said campaign spokeswoman Shelby DeMars.
In total campaign fundraising, Democratic candidates are outraising Republicans among the 99 candidates in the analysis, $1.65 million to $1.12 million. But that figure is skewed heavily by the fact that so many more Democratic incumbents (21) are endangered than Republicans (6). Incumbents are typically far stronger fundraisers and, in fact, the GOP incumbents on average have slightly outraised Democrats, $2.20 million to $2.18 million.
Yet even as Democratic incumbents are being outraised overall, they are drawing in more small dollars, averaging $192,500 per candidate to the GOP’s $135,400. In fact, Democratic nonincumbents are outraising GOP incumbents in small-dollar money, on average by almost $34,000, despite the fact that Republican lawmakers presumably have had years to cultivate a small-donor base.
Gerrit Lansing, the NRCC’s digital director, warned that “Democrats ought to be very careful about bragging too much.”
“Fundraising is just one part of the digital game,” he said. “House Republicans have seen a 300 percent increase in online fundraising this election year, heavily invested in digital voter contact, and are closing the gap every day.”