Democratic House Candidates Are Walloping Republicans in the Small-Money Game

A National Journal analysis finds Democrats are bringing in $100,000 more on average from small contributors than Republicans in top races.

National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
Sept. 28, 2014, 4:29 p.m.

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.”

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