When Karen Bass was elected to the California Assembly in 2004, a city council member gave her a tone-deaf piece of advice: Don’t act like the other women in Sacramento.
“Women are only interested in policy,” the council member warned Bass. “They’re not interested in power and fundraising. Don’t be like all the other women.”
Though offended at the time, Bass took his advice to heart. The former Los Angeles community organizer had been eager to stop dialing for dollars and focus on policy issues she cares about, such as foster care. Instead, she doubled down on the art of political fundraising.
“I didn’t understand that you needed to raise money for the caucus,” now-Rep. Bass (D-Calif.) said in a recent interview. “When I saw that it was true, I made it my business to be the number-one fundraiser of my freshman class. I wanted to raise more money than anybody.”
Fundraising was a big key to Bass’s meteoric rise in the California Assembly: She raised a reported $1 million over the next four years as she rose from majority whip to floor leader to Assembly speaker. In her final term, she held sway over California’s $86 billion budget, second in power only to then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. She was the first African American woman to lead a state legislative body.
“I would have stumbled into that knowledge, and it probably wouldn’t have been in my first term. I’ve told every woman since,” she said.
Lawmakers — not just women — frequently think that fundraising is the worst part of their job. But it has become critical to their success as the cost of campaigns skyrockets: Winning a House seat cost $1.5 million on average in 2014, up 171 percent since 1994, and winning a Senate seat cost $9.7 million, up 115 percent. A recent crop of House freshmen were advised to spend at least four hours a day on fundraising calls just to keep pace.
But according to interviews with more than a dozen women in Congress, raising campaign funds poses unique challenges for women entering politics and seeking to rise through the ranks. Building a war chest is essential to female politicians as they work to get elected and to secure a seat at the leadership table, which involves both campaigning and fundraising for colleagues.
“Men wake up in the morning and they think, ‘I’ve got this — I should be president,'” said Muthoni Wambu Kraal, a senior official with Emily’s List, which spends heavily to elect women who support abortion rights. “With women, there is a lot more of a learning curve.”
A growing body of academic research backs this up. Scholars have found that women exhibit more negative attitudes toward fundraising and express more concerns about attracting donors, to the point that it can deter some from running for office in the first place. Once they enter a race, women devote more time and effort to fundraising compared with their male peers: Because they typically raise more money from small contributions of less than $200, women have to build bigger networks to gather the same amount.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said the all-consuming nature of raising money in politics has confirmed her belief in campaign finance reform.
“I think we have to change it,” she said. “I think it’s not conducive to the Democratic process, and it’s gotten worse in the time I’ve been involved in politics.”
Compared with their Republican peers, Democratic women benefit from a rich ecosystem of training and fundraising efforts on the left.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for example, pairs a select number of female candidates with female House members to help guide them through the process, including the initial discomfort of asking family members for money. And groups like Emily’s List, which raised $52 million for Democratic women candidates in the 2011-2012 cycle, have taught thousands of women the art of fundraising through intensive training sessions.
Some training is less formal: Lawmakers such as Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) are known for passing along specific advice to up-and-coming female candidates.
In an interview, Klobuchar (D-Minn.) joked that she raised $15,000 for an early race from ex-boyfriends alone.
“I don’t come from money at all, and that puts you at a disadvantage,” Klobuchar said. “So I had a kickboxing fundraiser. I did a bunch of crazy, small-dollar events. I would ask my law-school friends for help.”
Klobuchar suggests women make their fundraising calls from home if they have children so they can maximize family time. Gillibrand is known for talking women through the calls themselves.
“Kirsten helped me with this paradigm shift — that I’m not asking for myself, I’m asking for the people of my district,” said Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.), an old friend of Gillibrand’s who was elected in 2010. “And you have to ask specifically for money. Not just, ‘Help me however you can help me.’ Instead, you say: ‘Can you give me $1,000?'”
Another tip: Don’t seek to fill the pause that comes after you make the big ask.
“He who speaks first after you make the ask is the loser. If you have to take five gulps of water because you don’t like the pregnant pause, that’s fine, because he who opens their mouth first loses,” Sewell recalled Gillibrand saying.
Patti Solis Doyle, Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign manager, advises up-and-coming women to cultivate grit and confidence for the fundraising process.
“Women need to dig deep and just do it,” she said. “You have to get over yourself. Because men don’t think twice about it. They don’t blink.”
There are a handful of figures on Capitol Hill who actually enjoy the process of asking for donations. One is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Democrats’ most prolific fundraiser, who has raised about $522 million since 2002, including about $93 million this election cycle alone. She said it’s not just about raising money — it’s about “attracting” it.
“I consider people an intellectual resource,” Pelosi said. “I need the benefit of their thinking. It is invigorating in terms of how they see priorities. I’ve never considered anybody just a financial donor. That’s why our universe of people continues to grow.”
Women who fundraise in politics professionally are finding their way into bigger roles. One example is Katie Walsh, the chief of staff for the Republican National Committee, who helped the committee bring in more than $200 million during the 2014 election cycle as its finance director.
She said female fundraisers have an important perspective on political strategy — and certain abilities men don’t.
“Women aren’t as afraid of hearing no,” Walsh said. “I think by nature women are just more comfortable asking for money and following up and having that dialogue again.”
Republican women seeking office lack a fundraising infrastructure comparable to Democrats. Women’s PACs give seed money disproportionately to female Democrats, Peter L. Francia, of the University of Maryland, has found. And while there are a handful of groups committed to electing GOP women — the Value in Electing Women PAC, Maggie’s List and Unlocking Potential PAC are three — they wield less power and carry less name recognition than similar Democratic groups.
Another player on the right, the Susan B. Anthony List, for example, sometimes turns against Republican women if they do not demonstrate strong enough opposition to abortion rights. This year, the group supported the male primary challenger who beat Rep. Renee L. Ellmers (R-N.C.). In an odd twist, it was Ellmers who in 2013 helped launch the National Republican Congressional Committee’s (NRCC) women-focused “Project Grow,” another GOP effort to recruit, train and fundraise for female candidates that has struggled to gain traction.
NRCC Chairman Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.) said enlisting Republican women to run for Congress “makes our party and our country stronger.”
“I have made it a priority to recruit and elect candidates with diverse backgrounds, including women, and I am proud of our success in doing so. The House Republican Conference includes several women in leadership roles including our Conference Chair, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, as well as a number of younger members, like Elise Stefanik, who will be the next generation of leaders for our party,” Walden said in a statement.
Walden’s desire for more female members echoes the conclusion of a 2013 GOP report outlining ways to expand the party’s appeal. But, as such scholars as Michele L. Swers of Georgetown University have found, neither male nor female Republican donors see electing women as a particular priority; they care much more about ideology.
“This makes it hard for groups who want to raise money for Republican women to gain traction because the Republican donor base is not responsive to a message of needing to elect women in a process they believe should be merit-based,” Swers wrote in an email.
Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.
This story has been updated to reflect the most up to date fundraising numbers for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).