House Democrats' Fundraising Juggernaut Stuns GOP

More than 90 Republican incumbents were outraised by a challenger last quarter—many of them by large margins.

Democratic candidate Lauren Underwood for Illinois's 14th Congressional District speaks at a LGBTQ roundtable after being endorsed by Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin on Oct. 3, 2018 in Geneva, Ill.
John Konstantaras/AP Images for Human Rights Campaign
Oct. 17, 2018, 7:04 a.m.

House Democrats aren’t just beating Republicans at the fundraising game—they’re annihilating them.

Ninety-two Republican incumbents were outraised by a challenger in the third quarter of 2018, a sharp increase from the 56 outraised in the second quarter. And that topline doesn’t even fully capture the scope of Democrats’ cash advantage. More than 50 of those members were outraised at least 2-to-1 and 31 were outraised 3-to-1 or more.

It’s been clear for weeks that Democrats would notch a record-breaking fundraising period, buoyed by small-dollar online donations from a grassroots base eager to defy President Trump. But Republicans revealed a staggering disparity as they filed their third-quarter reports at the Monday deadline.

“That is a startling number of incumbents being outraised by dramatic margins,” New Jersey-based Republican strategist Mike DuHaime said. “It’s one thing to be outraised, it’s another thing to be outraised in multiples.”

And these statistics have no recent precedent. According to a National Journal analysis of Federal Election Commission data, 48 Democrats were outraised by a Republican challenger in the third quarter of 2010, a cycle that saw Republicans net 63 seats on their way to taking back the House. In the third quarter of 2016, just 16 GOP incumbents were outraised.

This cycle, Democrats’ advantage is evident in nearly every top House battleground. In the 69 districts (including open seats) deemed most competitive by The Cook Political Report, just two Republicans posted higher third-quarter fundraising than their Democratic opponent: Reps. Mia Love of Utah and George Holding of North Carolina.

Republicans expected to be outraised on the candidate level, but consultants and strategists said in interviews that the size of the imbalance came as a shock. All cycle, top Republicans have expressed frustration with members who had yet to heed warnings to step up their fundraising calls, and the consequences are becoming more severe as outside groups begin political triage, abandoning seats that look unsalvageable.

“It makes it very hard for a campaign committee to come in and provide the very expensive air support to help an incumbent out when they’re getting outraised this badly,” said Ken Spain, a Republican who worked on the House campaign arm in 2010. “At some point you have to ask yourself, ‘Are we just throwing good money after bad?’”

Some 70 GOP incumbents were outspent in the past three months, about half of them by a 2-to-1 margin. That likely reflects the scores of House Democratic candidates who went on the air the previous quarter—some of them well before Labor Day.

Operatives from both parties said Democrats’ ability to air TV ads early and secure millions in contributions has allowed them to define themselves to voters and erase some of the advantages of incumbency. Many of the Democratic candidates posting monster hauls are in races that require advertising in costly markets.

In a Los Angeles-area district, Katie Hill raised $3.8 million, eight times more than Republican Rep. Steve Knight, while in Orange County, Harley Rouda raised $3.1 million, more than seven times as much as Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. In suburban Chicago, Lauren Underwood hauled nearly five times more than Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren. And in northern New Jersey, Tom Malinowski quadrupled the fundraising of Republican Rep. Leonard Lance.

Dozens of GOP incumbents have plowed through the bank accounts they had amassed over the cycle. By the end of September, more than 30 Republicans trailed a challenger in cash on hand, including Rohrabacher, Knight, and Hultgren. At the end of the second quarter in June, only 16 GOP incumbents had lost their cash-on-hand advantage.

“If it was left candidate to candidate I’d feel confident that we’re going to outspend,” said Democratic consultant John Lapp, a former executive director of the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “The only thing that really keeps me up at night is the undisclosed, dark-money groups that are coming in and pounding away to even the score.”

Last-minute checks from mega-donors, such as Sheldon Adelson, to their major outside groups provide a crucial silver lining to the GOP. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with the House GOP that has received millions from Adelson, began its onslaught of attack ads over the summer and plans to spend upwards of $100 million.

Yet some Republicans concede it would be more cost-efficient and effective if their candidates had the ability to run more of their own ads, which they can place at cheaper rates while better crafting the messaging.

“It’s not a good situation,” said former Rep. Tom Reynolds, who led the National Republican Congressional Committee in the 2004 and 2006 cycles. “They become dependent on whatever will happen in the outside support. And that’s never as good as if you’ve got your own money.”

Compounding Republican fears is the dire situation they face in the large number of open seats. Democrats outraised Republicans in all but two of the 28 most competitive open-seat races. In 15 of those contests, a Democratic candidate raised at least three times more than the Republican.

One clear takeaway: Campaign funds are proving to be renewable resource for Democrats. Last quarter, 22 Democratic candidates raised $1 million or more. Three months later, all 22 did so again, as did 43 more Democrats. In fact, 12 of those candidates raised $3 million or more.

Democrats don’t appear to be tapping out of small donors. Amy McGrath, a former Marine aviator, raised a massive $3.65 million last quarter, more than three times the haul of her opponent, Republican Rep. Andy Barr of Kentucky. In the 15 days since the quarter ended, she’s raised close to $1 million.

Republicans analyzing the filings conceded they they confirmed what Democrats have claimed since the beginning of the cycle—the battlefield is growing to massive proportions. In recent weeks, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee booked air time in deep-red territory in central and western Pennsylvania, as well as Arkansas—three districts where incumbents were outraised.

“I’ve heard pretty often that Republican members have been satisfied with their fundraising, relatively speaking, but then the Democrats’ numbers come out,” said Republican consultant Doug Heye. “It’s just so massive.”

“There’s a lot to be very, very nervous about,” he said, “especially because we have an expanding map every week.”

In November 2017, Rep. Steve Stivers, the chairman of the NRCC, described as “preposterous” Democrats’ plans to target Republican Reps. French Hill of Arkansas and Hultgren.

Both seats have now seen hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside money and polling indicates tight races.

Some Republicans are already looking past this cycle at the larger implications of Democrats’ ability to rake in massive amounts in small-dollar online donations.

ActBlue, the flagship Democratic fundraising platform, had a record fundraising period this past quarter when it brought in more than $385 million, more than it raised in the entire 2014 cycle. Nine House Democratic candidates raised $500,000 or more through the organization in August, according to analysis of FEC records.

“Is this a onetime trend or a fundamental realignment?” said Cam Savage, a Republican consultant working with several battleground Republicans. “Because if it’s always going to be the way it is for Democrats, then Republicans have got to find a way to match it or to change the equation.”

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