House Democrats' Green Wave Flows Into 2020 Cycle

Nearly 30 freshmen raised at least $400,000 in the first quarter of the off-year.

Katie Porter speaks during an election-night event in Tustin, Calif. on Nov. 6, 2018.
AP Photo/Chris Carlson
April 16, 2019, 1:47 p.m.

The green wave doesn't appear to be ebbing.

Twenty-eight freshman Democrats raised at least $400,000 in their first three months in the House, according to an analysis of reports due to the Federal Election Commission on Monday. Among them, 15 passed the half-million-dollar threshold.

With the next election a year-and-a-half away and at a time when donors could be fatigued from the previous cycle, the strong first-quarter figures from what are many of the party’s most vulnerable members are a sign that the grass-roots enthusiasm that propelled Democrats to the majority hasn’t faded.

"Democrats know that taking back the House was a very, very important victory," said Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, who raised $562,000. "And we don’t want to give it back after taking it."

The totals aren’t the million-dollar quarters that some nominees were posting late last year, when a fire-charged Democratic base was eager for its first chance to deliver a referendum on President Trump. But operatives from both parties have been impressed—or concerned—by stronger-then-expected hauls during the start of an off year.

For comparison, about 45 Republican incumbents raised more than $300,000 in the first quarter of 2017, according to FEC filings. In 2019, some 70 Democrats banked that amount.

"We obviously want to win the majority back, so we’ve got to work harder," said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "We’ve got to get our base as focused on what it means to hold the House as they have been able to do with their base."

There was some hope within the GOP that the Democrats' fundraising momentum would stall after the election. Last cycle, Democratic challengers crushed Republican incumbents each quarter, sometimes out-raising them by two- or threefold.

But in interviews, freshman members described a concerted effort to pad their bank accounts quickly while Republicans are still in the early stages of candidate recruitment and with top-ticket races not yet in full swing.

"Right now, we have to be doing the fundraising," said Rep. Katie Hill of California, who brought in $608,000. "We can’t count on it, especially after the presidential is on to the general so we’ve got to be aggressive early on."

In preparation, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made early investments to bolster freshman members' fundraising in the first three months. In February, it deployed candidate fundraising advisers to 20 districts. The committee also brought in digital strategists earlier than normal to help new incumbents develop strategies to grow their online fundraising lists, including the use of digital ads and paid acquisition of email addresses.

After losing 40 seats, House Republicans have been aggressively recruiting prospective candidates, and found strong interest among women, veterans, and minorities. But some party operatives acknowledge that massive Democratic fundraising could deter those potential challengers from moving forward with a campaign.

"I'm in a Republican seat, so I want to demonstrate that I have a strong base of support," said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who raised $539,000 after flipping a GOP-held seat in suburban Detroit. "I just want to make sure they know that if they’re going to run against me, it’s going to be one hell of a fight."

These stellar fundraising hauls came despite the obstacles that arose through the first quarter. Members had to contend with a 35-day government shutdown, during which fundraising could seem tactless, and the launch of several high-profile presidential candidates who are incentivized to reach 65,000 donors, which is one of the criteria for making the first presidential debate.

"We have this extreme competition from the Democratic presidential field," said Taryn Rosenkranz, the CEO of a digital firm that works with several House Democrats. "It’s the first time that you’ve really got them going hard for the same group of small-dollar, grassroots donations."

Democrats' fundraising windfall is facilitated in part by the online fundraising platform ActBlue, which raised $1.6 billion last cycle. It has allowed dozens of Democrats to eschew corporate PAC money and still bring in enough to fuel a strong reelection campaign.

In total, 21 of the 28 Democrats who raised more than $400,000 last quarter refused corporate PAC money. Many Republican incumbents who lost in 2018 relied on such donations to achieve a fraction of the first-quarter fundraising these Democrats had.

"It’s all a function of the base Democrats’ disdain for President Trump," said Cam Savage, a veteran Republican operative. "I never bought that all that energy was just going to go away. This is a movement that did not fully let off all the steam."

Some vulnerable Republicans also brought in impressive hauls last quarter. Reps. Ann Wagner of Missouri, Will Hurd of Texas, and Rodney Davis of Illinois all raised more than $500,000.

Republicans, who have devoted extensive time and resources to create a competitor to ActBlue, unveiled a plan earlier this year to combine an existing online-payment processor and voter-information clearinghouse into one centralized system, called WINRED. A launch date hasn't been finalized, but it is expected to be running in a matter of weeks, according to a strategist with knowledge of the effort.

The goal is to harness Trump's popularity with the Republican grass roots—and, ideally, keep pace with the Democrats.

"Our ActBlue is Donald Trump. He vacuums up a tremendous number of small-dollar donors and puts them into the ecosystem," the strategist said. "Having him taking part in this is what makes it so powerful."

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