Against the Grain

The GOP’s Deep Fundraising Funk

Congressional Republicans are struggling to raise money for their campaigns. If they don’t turn things around, they won’t be able to fully capitalize on the improving political mood.

Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Feb. 4, 2018, 6 a.m.

Republicans badly need the tax bill to raise their financial fortunes as much as the booming economy is improving their political fortunes. Based on newly released fundraising figures, Republican congressional candidates continue to badly lag behind their Democratic counterparts. In several high-profile races, GOP candidates’ lackluster fundraising in the final three months of 2017 raises questions about their political viability.

At the same time, Democratic officeholders and first-time candidates alike are benefiting from the surge in partisan activism, with numerous senators surpassing the $2 million mark in quarterly fundraising and over three-dozen Democratic challengers outraising Republican members of Congress.

Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, the most vulnerable Republican senator, raised just $821,000 in the last three months of 2017—a pittance for an incumbent facing a two-front war from conservative skeptics and Democratic activists. His Democratic challenger, Rep. Jacky Rosen, raised nearly double his haul, with over $1.5 raised in the fourth quarter. Given that Sin City is home to some of the GOP’s wealthiest donors—including Sheldon Adelson and just-ousted Republican National Committee financial chairman Steve Wynn—Heller’s weak haul is particularly glaring.

In Indiana, the state that’s close to a must-win for Senate Republicans, the two congressmen challenging Sen. Joe Donnelly also struggled to raise much money. Rep. Todd Rokita didn’t hit the half-million mark, bringing in just $459,000. Rep. Luke Messer, who boasts connections to Vice President Mike Pence, did even worse with just a $430,000 haul. A third candidate, former state legislator Mike Braun, raised just $250,000 from donors but supplemented it with $1.75 million of his own money. Donnelly, for his part, raised $1.2 million and has banked $5.3 million.

Meanwhile, the GOP’s leading Senate recruit, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, isn’t matching his political potential with fundraising resources for his campaign against Sen. Claire McCaskill. For the second straight quarter he didn’t hit the $1 million mark, and he has just $1.2 million cash on hand. McCaskill was one of the Democrats’ strongest fundraisers. She raised $2.9 million and has more than seven times as much cash in her campaign account (over $9 million).

The list goes on: As The Hotline noted, Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania all raised over $2.4 million, easily outpacing their GOP competition. Even Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, one of the GOP’s most prolific fundraisers, was comfortably outdistanced by little-known Rep. Beto O’Rourke in a Senate race that could end up surprisingly competitive.

Here’s a sign of the times: The Democratic candidate for an upcoming House special election in Pennsylvania raised more money than the GOP’s Senate standard-bearer against Casey in the same state. Democrat Conor Lamb brought in an impressive $561,000 in the last three months of 2017, while GOP Rep. Lou Barletta didn’t raise even $500,000 for a Senate race that will cost many millions.

Indeed, the partisan fundraising disparity continues into the House battlegrounds. Hotline’s Ally Mutnick reported that 38 House Republicans have been outraised in the fourth fundraising quarter—a historically high mark. The list includes Reps. Mike Coffman of Colorado, Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania, and Mike Bishop of Michigan, three members who are typically well-prepared for their reelections. They all raised healthy amounts of money, but were surpassed by upstart Democratic challengers.

The one financial silver lining for Republicans is that outside groups supporting their campaigns are flush with cash. The Republican National Committee dramatically outraised the Democratic National Committee, bringing in twice as much money in 2017 as its partisan rival ($132.5 million to $65.1 million). The Paul Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund and American Action Network groups brought in $66 million during 2017, giving them enough money to organize and air ads in numerous battleground House districts. Their Senate counterpart, the Senate Leadership Fund, raised a healthy $14.2 million last year as well. But with a long roster of competitive races in both the House and Senate, lagging GOP candidates won’t be able to count on super PACs to bail them out if they can’t help themselves.

There’s good reason to believe that the GOP’s financial pace will pick up this year. National polls have gotten more competitive for the party, and donors will be rewarding Republicans for getting a consequential tax bill passed. But if the numbers don’t turn around soon, it’s yet another piece of evidence that 2018 will be a rough year for the party in power.

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