Against the Grain

Wave Alert: House Democrats Setting Fundraising Records

Republicans are getting beaten badly on the financial front. It’s an ominous sign for their chances of holding a House majority.

Texas congressional candidate MJ Hegar
MJ Hegar for Congress
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
July 17, 2018, 8 p.m.

To understand why House Democrats are still in strong position to retake the majority, simply follow the money. In the last quarter of fundraising, first-time Democratic candidates across the country raised stunning sums of money more closely associated with presidential campaigns than lower-profile House races.

All told, 54 House Republicans were outraised by upstart Democratic challengers between April and June. Twenty-two Democratic candidates brought in over $1 million in that period alone. At least 13 House Republicans have banked less money than their Democratic opponents, despite the myriad advantages of incumbency. If Democrats simply won the races where they have more cash on hand—32 GOP-held seats in total—they would end up holding a comfortable majority.

Among the most impressive performers were Navy veteran Mikie Sherrill, a first-time candidate who brought in $1.88 million for an open House seat in New Jersey; former Obama defense-policy adviser Elissa Slotkin, who raised $1.15 million and now has more cash on hand than GOP Rep. Mike Bishop in Michigan; and California nonprofit executive Katie Hill, whose $1.32 million raised is nearly triple the amount of politically experienced GOP Rep. Steve Knight.

The Republican fundraising mecca of Texas has turned into an unlikely magnet for Democratic donors. Four highly touted Democratic recruits in the state raised more than $1 million, each significantly outdistancing their longtime GOP opponents. Seven of the state’s Republican representatives were outraised. For a sign of how uncommon this is: Democrats haven’t picked up a GOP-held House seat in Texas since 2006.

The historic fundraising flurry is reflective of a supercharged Democratic base desperate for a check on Donald Trump’s presidency and an avenue back into power. Many embattled Republicans have raised respectable amounts of money, but have been overwhelmed by a tidal wave of donations pouring into the Democratic candidates’ coffers.

Democratic senators have also seen improved fundraising, but haven’t experienced the huge spike in fundraising that insurgent House challengers have enjoyed. Sherrill’s whopping fundraising total, for instance, was comparable to several sitting Democratic senators up for reelection, even surpassing the amount of Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia.

This imbalance reflects Democrats’ renewed focus on taking the House, the chamber more likely to flip in the midterms. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has revamped its digital operations, hiring a fundraising strategist for each region to work closely with campaigns—and maximize their ability to raise money off every Trump outrage. When the president does something to aggravate liberals, the leading campaigns are well prepared to push out an email targeting supporters to donate money off the controversy.

More donors are giving directly to candidates, doing research on which recruits could benefit most from an infusion of cash. The progressive donating platform ActBlue has served as a critical tool directing Democratic energy into money for competitive campaigns.

In addition, a handful of compelling candidates have translated viral attention to their unique biographies into huge fundraising windfalls. Two female military veterans whose personal stories became must-see campaign videos—Kentucky’s Amy McGrath and Texas’s MJ Hegar—were among the Democrats’ leading fundraisers this cycle. A video for the campaign of ironworker Randy Bryce—then running against House Speaker Paul Ryan—earned him the nickname “IronStache” and made his campaign one of the best-funded in the country.

Republicans are more dependent on outside groups to maintain the GOP’s overall fundraising advantage, with the Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund raising a record $51 million in the second quarter. But the impressive CLF fundraising only goes so far. The National Republican Congressional Committee has posted less cash on hand than its Democratic counterpart since April, an unusual dynamic for the party in power. With an ever-widening field of competitive races, Republicans still won’t be able to spend everywhere their candidates need it. Meanwhile, outside groups have to pay a higher rate for advertising compared to candidates, putting a premium on strong campaign-centered fundraising.

Money doesn’t always translate into votes, but the fundraising figures are yet another metric suggesting that Democrats hold a clear political advantage. For every poll that shows Republicans running competitively on the generic ballot, election results have consistently shown Democrats racking up surprising off-year victories and turning out in record levels. Next month’s special-election race in a reliably GOP Ohio district is tightening, operatives in both parties agree—yet another sign of the treacherous political environment for Republicans.

In the roller-coaster ride that is the Trump presidency, this has been a disastrous summer for Republicans. The backlash against his administration’s draconian family-separation policy cost the party support among moderate suburbanites. The president’s disgraceful summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin threatens to hurt him with soft Republicans ordinarily willing to cut him some slack. Add the eye-popping Democratic fundraising figures to the picture, and the odds of a significant Democratic wave are increasing yet again.

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