House Democrats say they have built the largest offensive battlefield in at least a decade—and the numbers back up the claim.
Some 180 Democratic House candidates in nearly 100 Republican-held districts entered 2018 with $100,000 or more in the bank, according to a National Journal analysis of Federal Election Commission data. By comparison, when Democrats last claimed the majority in 2006, only about 40 of their candidates in 38 GOP-held districts reached that mark by the start of the election year.
Democrats’ task this year will be to translate a banner off-year full of energized grassroots donors and well-funded candidates into a 24-seat net gain that would deliver control of the House. Republicans are already preparing for the worst.
“You have Democrats who are willing to put their money where their mouth is, and they’re coming after us,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee. “These numbers should wake everybody up, even the guys in R+7 districts.”
Some other alarming statistics for Republicans: At least 43 GOP incumbents were outraised by a Democratic challenger in the last three months of 2017. And in at least 14 districts, a Democratic candidate had more cash on hand than the Republican incumbent, including Reps. John Culberson of Texas and John Faso of New York.
Fundraising has been impressive even in red seats on the periphery of the map, nudging members who haven’t faced a serious challenge in several years into potentially difficult races.
Districts that could previously be taken for granted, like those held by Reps. Jackie Walorski in northern Indiana and Cathy McMorris Rodgers in eastern Washington, now have Democratic challengers with more than $400,000 in cash on hand. Democratic candidates also posted stronger fundraising than any GOP competitor in an open Topeka, Kansas-based district and an open southern New Mexico district that are not typically competitive.
And in North Carolina, Democratic candidates have outraised and nullified the cash-on-hand advantage of Reps. Robert Pittenger and Ted Budd, whose districts Donald Trump carried with less than 55 percent of the vote in 2016.
A massive battlefield has been a central component of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s comeback strategy. Increasing the number of competitive races could overextend the House Republican campaign arm and outside groups—which outspend their Democratic counterparts—as they work to prop up incumbents.
“It’s going to force them to have to figure out where they’re going to defend and who they’re going to go down with,” DCCC Executive Director Dan Sena said. “It doesn’t allow their dark money to be able to taint as many races.”
The DCCC made strategic structural changes at the start of the cycle to help it manage the glut of candidates running for Congress. The committee increased its staff, enhanced digital fundraising to help candidates harness grassroots energy, and assembled a team of top campaign operatives—referred to internally as “political Swiss Army knives”—who deploy as needed to help individual campaigns be viable.
Republican outside groups have pledged millions of dollars in support of the majority. But party strategists may need to shift resources as spending priorities multiply and some races become lost causes.
“You make those decisions in October, and they’re not very pleasant,” Davis said. “If you’re in a metropolitan district, they could let you go because it’s just too expensive.”
By the end of the fourth quarter, some 230 Democratic candidates in at least 115 Republican-held-seats had raised at least $100,000. That will keep growing as fundraising continues and as Democrats make a final recruiting push.
Candidates continue to line up for the chance to run in the first midterm under President Trump. In January, a millionaire philanthropist entered the race to take on GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick in the Philadelphia area. A county clerk of courts who launched a bid last week in Cincinnati raised more in 24 hours than Republican Rep. Steve Chabot did all of last quarter.
“If you don’t have candidates with money in the bank, you have to put them on institutional life support to keep their campaigns viable,” said Ty Matsdorf, who led the DCCC’s independent-expenditure arm. “But if they’ve got their own resources, that can expand the battlefield because you’ve got seats in play that you don’t even have to worry about.”
Republicans take solace in the fact that some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars Democrats have brought in will be spent in internecine battles. There are more than 40 Republican-held districts where two or more Democrats entered 2018 with at least $100,000 in the bank, raising the prospect that dozens of nominees could emerge with depleted bank accounts. Several of those primaries will play out in some of the costliest media markets, such as Houston, Chicago, and Washington D.C.
And there is some optimism among Republicans that having passed a landmark tax-code overhaul in late December will entice the base into writing more checks.
“The donor calls my clients are making today are going light years better than they were in November,” said Guy Harrison, a former NRCC executive director whose firm, OnMessage Inc., advises about 30 members.
Several of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents entered 2018 with more than $1 million in cash on hand. Still, late Republican retirements, such as those of Reps. Darrell Issa and Ed Royce in Southern California and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen in New Jersey, gave Democrats a fundraising head start and deprived the NRCC of some million-dollar war chests.
One of the GOP’s bright spots is an open seat in Washington where Dino Rossi, who has run statewide three times, raised more than his closest four Democratic opponents combined. But Democrats have outraised Republicans in several of the other most competitive open-seat races.
In an open southern Nevada swing district, Democrat Susie Lee raised at least three times as much in the fourth quarter, and has at least four times as much cash on hand, as any of her GOP rivals.
In New Hampshire’s open 1st District, the swingiest in the country, both Republican candidates raised less than $100,000 last quarter and trail the two top-raising Democrats in cash on hand, despite having had several additional months to fundraise.
“It’s obvious that we’ve got to improve our fundraising,” said Jason Roe, a Republican strategist working on House races. “But I expect the first quarter of 2018 to be dramatically better.”