At the start of April, anyone who predicted how the second quarter of 2020 fundraising would go was probably bluffing. The covid-19 pandemic had shut down much of the economy. Millions of workers who might have been small-dollar donors were waiting for unemployment checks. The stock market was crashing, with unknown effects for the megadonors who can give seven figures to super PACs or max out to lists of down-ballot candidates.
Three months later, and political fundraising has basically kept pace with a normal political year — or even run past it. There's plenty of money sloshing around, most of it in competitive races, some of it frittered away on buzzy campaigns that aren't going to decide control of Congress. Here are five big things we learned.
Joe Biden has caught up with President Trump. As we wrote months ago, there were warning signs for the president's campaign during the Democratic primary. The total donations to Republicans running against Barack Obama in 2012 did not surpass Obama's fundraising; the total donations to the two dozen-plus Democrats running against Trump added up to more than the president himself was raising.
From April 1 to June 30, when Biden was the presumptive Democratic nominee, his campaign raised $282.1 million, ahead of the $266 million raised by the president's reelection operation. As our colleagues at The Post have written, Biden, who had lagged with small donors, has inherited them from other Democrats and attracted the sort of big checks that eluded him during the primary.
There's no slack in the Trump operation, though some of the money might not be spent as efficiently. Biden ended the quarter with $242 million in the bank, between his campaign and its joint fundraising committees. Trump ended the quarter with $295 million in cash between his campaign and his JFCs. Three months ago, Trump had a 2-1 lead in cash on hand; that lead has dwindled over a period when heavy campaign spending did not stop Biden from rising in the polls.
Most Democrats in competitive Senate races outraised the Republican incumbent. In Maine, the most lopsided of these races, Democrat Sara Gideon raised $9.2 million to Sen. Susan Collins's $3.6 million. In Colorado, the other Clinton 2016 state with a Republican defending a Senate seat, former governor John Hickenlooper raised $5.2 million while Sen. Cory Gardner raised $3.6 million, though Hickenlooper's primary drained some resources, and Gardner has twice as much cash on hand.
In North Carolina, Democrat Cal Cunningham raised $7.4 million while Sen. Thom Tillis raised $2.6 million, a gap that let Cunningham erase his cash-on-hand deficit. In Montana, Democrat Steve Bullock, the governor who's running for Senate, outraised Sen. Steve Daines, $5.3 million to $3.7 million. In Arizona, Republican Sen. Martha McSally had the best fundraising quarter of her career, with $9.3 million; challenger Mark Kelly raised $12.8 million. Even some candidates in deep red states that the national party is not investing in put up blockbuster numbers, with South Carolina's Jaime Harrison and Mississippi's Mike Espy outraising Republican incumbents. (Espy practically never stopped running after a single-digit loss in a 2018 special election.)
The exceptions: two races in mirror-opposite swing states. In Michigan, challenger John James once again outraised Sen. Gary Peters, $6.5 million to $5.2 million, the fourth consecutive quarter he's done so. (Peters was outspent in his first race six years ago, albeit by a weaker candidate.) In Texas, where a two-month runoff delay dragged out the Democratic primary, Sen. John Cornyn raised $3.5 million; MJ Hegar, who won the primary, raised just $1.6 million.
House Democrats built a cash lead, with a few exceptions. Republicans had a few reasons to cheer in the second quarter, from the full deployment of its WinRed donation portal to a victory in California's 25th District. Yet across the races both parties are competing seriously to win, Democrats raised around $68.4 million; Republicans raised around $51.2 million.
The primaries that started in earnest over these months complicated the picture. A few Democrats who had been on the GOP's target list, like California's Josh Harder and Katie Porter, drew weak opponents and put up seven-figure fundraising hauls as the Republicans sputtered. Some Democrats whose districts were vulnerable on paper — the president carried them in 2016 — ran far ahead of their challengers. In New York, for example, Rep. Antonio Delgado raised more than $722,000 to defend a district where Republicans failed to find a strong challenger, and he has literally 1,000 times as much cash on hand as his opponent.
The strongest Republican challengers stood out on this altered map. In Iowa, state legislator Ashley Hinson outpaced Rep. Abby Finkenauer; in California, challenger Michelle Steel outraised Rep. Harley Rouda by nearly 2-1; in Minnesota's 7th District, the most Trump-friendly seat currently held by a Democrat, 2018 Senate candidate Michelle Fischbach outraised Rep. Collin C. Peterson. Republicans outraised incumbent Democrats in at least 12 competitive districts. (The president carried 30 districts currently held by Democrats, and California's 25th District was substantially less Republican than any of them.)
To win the House, Republicans would need to flip twice as many seats, and most Democratic incumbents still lead in cash on hand. (Some, like California Rep. Gil Cisneros, have personal wealth they can plow into the race.) Still, a Republican premise at the start of this cycle was that they could find some challengers with more energy and appeal than many incumbents who'd lost in 2018. In some key races, that theory is bearing out, and candidates like Pennsylvania's Sean Parnell, who's challenging Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb, are doing enough to be competitive in places the party gave up on two years ago.
Four “squad” members, just one getting outspent. The left-wing women who won high-profile races in 2018 — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — have starred in Republican advertising ever since.
But Pressley has no primary challenge (or Republican opponent), and Ocasio-Cortez easily defeated a well-funded challenger. While Tlaib made a splash at the start of 2019, using an unprintable word to describe the president she promised to impeach, her reelection has not attracted much interest from donors; Brenda Jones, the Detroit City Council president who Tlaib narrowly defeated in 2018, raised less than $100,000 in the quarter and had less than $13,000 cash on hand. Tlaib raised nearly $780,000 and had close to $1.3 million on hand, a 100-to-1 cash advantage.
The exception, and it's a big one, is Omar. She raised less than $500,000 over the quarter, which for a safe-seat member of Congress is fairly standard. Her highest-profile primary challenger, Antone Melton-Meaux, raised $3.2 million. Much of that, as Buzzfeed's Molly Hensley-Clancy reported last week, came from donors outside the state who maxed out at the chance to retire Omar. Lacy Johnson, Omar's Republican opponent, raised more than $2 million for the quarter, despite having no clear path to victory in a Minneapolis-centered district that gave Hillary Clinton 74 percent of the vote.
Make news, make money. The single biggest predictor of whether a candidate has raised big money is whether that candidate has taken a high-profile role in an ongoing story. Omar and Melton-Meaux stand out in the category, but it's a crowded one.
Some of that money went to candidates who might not need it. Rep. Devin Nunes, who survived an expensive challenge in his safely Republican seat two years ago, raised $4.6 million for a race that Democrats are not seriously contesting. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York raised $1.2 million for her reelection; she has a rematch with a Democrat who, in 2018, lost the increasingly red district by 14 points. Rep. Matt Gaetz, whose seat is even redder, raised $901,000; that's nearly as much as he spent, in total, in his first congressional race four years ago. All three were prominent defenders of the president during the impeachment hearings and subsequent trial, and all three have remained prominent party voices since then.
In one race, a surge of attention helped out a Republican who literally has no opponent — Sen. Tom Cotton. His Democratic opponent quit after it was too late for the party to pick a replacement. When Cotton wrote a New York Times op-ed arguing for the use of military resources to quell civil unrest, the backlash (and counter-backlash from conservatives) helped him raise $1 million from small donors, letting him triple his fundraising from the previous quarter. In California's 28th District, the attention around impeachment helped Rep. Adam B. Schiff raise $1.7 million, as his Republican opponent raised nearly $800,000. All of that for a district that Clinton carried by 50 points.
“Wealthy longtime Democratic donors boosted Biden with big checks in the second quarter,” by Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Anu Narayanswamy
The deep wallets that closed to Biden during the primary are open now.
Is the Lincoln Project's tough talk alienating some natural Biden voters?
“Trump replaces campaign manager as polls show him trailing Biden in presidential race,” by Josh Dawsey and Michael Scherer
Brad Parscale takes a back seat to Bill Stepien.
Why so many long-shot GOP candidates end up endorsing a conspiracy theory.
“Tens of thousands of mail ballots have been tossed out in this year’s primaries. What will happen in November?” by Elise Viebeck and Michelle Ye Hee Lee
Why voters who thought their last-minute votes were counted were wrong.
“Sessions loses runoff in Alabama as Trump helps vanquish a key supporter he came to despise,” by Paul Kane and Toluse Olorunnipa
The end of a proto-Trump Republican's political career.
While New York continues counting ballots — more about that in the next newsletter — Alabama, Maine and Texas held primaries and runoffs without much incident and with most votes counted by midweek.
In Maine, at least 161,000 Democrats turned out statewide in a race that nominated State House Speaker Sara Gideon for U.S. Senate. It was the party’s first contested Senate primary since 2008, when just 81,727 Democrats voted on a challenger to Collins. Republican turnout was up, too, with at least 50,654 voters turning out in the primary in the 2nd Congressional District, won by Democrat Rep. Jared Golden in 2018. That was up substantially since 2014, the last Republican primary before that year's winner, Bruce Poliquin, won the long-Democratic seat.
In Alabama, 549,721 votes were cast in the Republican primary that nominated former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville to challenge Sen. Doug Jones (D). While there was some Republican nervousness about low turnout, this was around 70,000 more votes than Alabamians cast in the fateful summer 2017 runoff that would pit Jones against Republican nominee Roy Moore.
What boosted the overall numbers? Two competitive runoffs in the 1st and 2nd congressional districts, won respectively by businessman Jerry Carl and state legislator Barry Moore, both of them backed by the conservative Club for Growth.
In Texas, turnout was higher than expected, and the results closer than expected, in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who nearly flipped a Republican-friendly House seat in 2018, defeated longtime Dallas state legislator Royce West.
The runoff put an end to the longest and most crowded U.S. Senate primary for Texas Democrats in decades. Hegar, who impressed national Democrats in 2018, got the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s endorsement soon after announcing her run. That angered her competitors, most of whom endorsed West when he made the runoff.
Hegar ended up with a four-point win as turnout hit 955,735, the biggest for any runoff in Texas Democratic history. Some of that is due to population changes — when the state was solidly blue, fewer than 10 million people lived there. But some was a genuine surge by voters who had tended to ignore primaries and runoffs, with turnout falling close to 200,000 the last time the party picked a challenger to Sen. John Cornyn.
Hegar outspent West and had additional help from Emily's List, the liberal group founded to help female candidates get through primaries. Their late buy in the Houston media market may have been decisive; in the state's most populous and racially diverse county, 156,034 votes were cast, and West edged out Hegar by only 1,590 ballots. West’s domination of Dallas and Fort Worth wasn’t enough to outrun Hegar’s support from heavily Latino counties, rural counties and the Democratic stronghold of Travis County.
Travis County voters also unseated their district attorney, replacing her with criminal justice reform advocate José Garza, while liberal candidates prevailed in House runoffs. In the Dallas-area 24th District, Candace Valenzuela routed Kim Olson by 20 points; in the 10th District, 2018 nominee Mike Siegel defeated a more moderate candidate, Pritesh Gandhi.
Republican voters, meanwhile, rejected one of the biggest spenders in congressional campaign history and delivered at least one victory to the president. Kathaleen Wall, who spent a total of around $14 million on a 2018 race and a race for the 22nd District this year, lost in a landslide to Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls, who spent next to nothing on the runoff. Ronny L. Jackson, the president’s former physician, won a 15-point victory in the safely Republican 13th District; having defeated a former aide to retiring Rep. Mac Thornberry, he’s got a glide path to Congress.
The race in the 23rd District, a massive rural area lost by the president four years ago, was too close to call. Tony Gonzales, whom the president endorsed, led by seven votes as of Thursday morning; Raul Reyes, endorsed by Sen. Ted Cruz, had not conceded the race. And in the conservative 17th District, former Dallas-area congressman Pete Sessions defeated conservative activist Renee Swann and is favored to win the seat and return to Congress in November.
Roy Cooper, “Wrong.” Cooper, who narrowly won the race for governor in North Carolina four years ago, saw his popularity surge as he ordered stay-at-home rules to respond to the covid-19 pandemic. This spot attacks his Republican challenger, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, for skeptical quotes about the restrictions and even some skepticism about whether masks are useful for preventing infections. “North Carolina? We’ve never had a curve problem here,” Forest says in one clip. “Our curve has always been flat.”
John Cornyn, “Shades.” After spending some money to boost MJ Hegar’s primary opponent, Cornyn welcomed his Democratic challenger to the race with a nickname his campaign coined last year: “Hollywood Hegar,” a knock on her support from some celebrities. (Comedian Patton Oswalt appeared in her launch video.) It’s also the latest Republican ad in a Senate race that links the Democrat to well-known “liberals,” like Elizabeth Warren, but makes no mention of the Democratic nominee for president.
Do you think some voters in your community secretly back Trump? (Monmouth, 401 registered Pennsylvania voters)
No, not really: 35%
Yes, many: 27%
Yes, only a few: 17%
Yes, not sure how many: 13%
The top line of this poll was about as bad as any the president has gotten this year, with Joe Biden holding a 12-point lead in a state Trump carried four years ago. But the Trump campaign and some conservative commentators zeroed in on this question, which found voters of all kinds confident that some Trump voters simply weren't telling neighbors, or pollsters, whom they supported. Fifty-seven percent of Pennsylvanians believed this to be true of at least some of their peers, the latest example of the three-and-a-half year hangover that the 2016 election gave Democrats.
Do you support or oppose the president's pardon of Roger Stone? (NBC/WSJ, 441 registered voters)
Don't know enough: 47%
The president's decision to commute a political adviser's sentence came late Friday and did not generate much news after the weekend. As other polling (before the pardon) suggested, only the president's most hardcore supporters wanted him to pardon Stone; as Democrats feared, half the country was generally unaware of the decision. Wary of focusing too much on anti-Trump messaging, after blaming a focus on that for some of Hillary Clinton's problems with crossover voters in 2016, Democrats have not done much to keep Trump scandals in headlines. The flip side: The president is not having much success getting anti-Biden stories to last more than a day, either.
Will it will be safe or unsafe to send students to schools in the fall? (Quinnipiac, 1,273 registered voters)
Safe: 31% (-9)
Unsafe: 62% (+10)
Another national poll that found Trump trailing badly, Quinnipiac's questions about schools may have been more revealing. Since May, before covid-19 outbreaks in the Sun Belt, worries about sending children to school have surged. In the South, fully 68 percent of voters worry that it will be unsafe to return to school by the fall, with some school terms beginning in a few weeks. And just 29 percent of voters say they approve of how the president, who has threatened the funding of states that don't opening schools, is handling the situation. There may be no better example of how the overwhelming reality of the pandemic is blotting out the sorts of cultural issues the president has focused on at many events.
In the states
Florida's two-year battle over the restoration of voting rights to former felons continued Thursday, as a Supreme Court majority opted not to overturn a lower-court decision that restricted which voters were covered by a sweeping state constitutional amendment.
In 2018, a supermajority of Floridians passed a ballot measure that ended the state's practice of requiring felons to appeal to a political board for their voting rights. The language, as far as campaigners were concerned, restored voting rights as soon as people convicted of felonies finished their sentences, as is the case in most states. Republicans, who control the state legislature and governor's office, passed a bill limiting the vote to those who had paid all fines and fees related to their convictions, including court fees that many states don't have. The court's majority cited Purcell v. Gonzalez, a 2006 case restricting judicial intervention close to an election.
“This Court’s inaction continues a trend of condoning disfranchisement,” wrote Justice Sonya Sotomayor in her dissent. “Ironically, this Court has wielded Purcell as a reason to forbid courts to make voting safer during a pandemic, overriding two federal courts because any safety related changes supposedly came too close to election day."
Normally, this update on the whereabouts and strategies of the presidential candidates focuses on Joe Biden and Donald Trump. But this was the week that Kanye West, the rapper/producer/mogul who has repeatedly talked about running for president, actually filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission and filed for access to Oklahoma's ballot. Yes, Kanye West is running for president.
Yesterday's filings were related. It takes no signatures, just a $35,000 filing fee, to obtain access to Oklahoma's ballot as an independent candidate. Before the state's July 15 deadline was up, a representative for West filed his paperwork, complete with seven electors, with the state, and he was officially a candidate. Any candidate who gets or spends at least $5,000 on a campaign must file a declaration of candidacy with the FEC, and West did so, 11 days after he tweeted that he was running for the White House.
As of Thursday afternoon, though, West had said nothing else about his campaign, and his paperwork pointed to a campaign site (kanye2020.org) that was registered in March 2018 and has no content. His most recent tweets have promoted ergonomic chairs. The campaign so far resembles the video start-up Quibi — celebrity name recognition, vast financial resources and not much public demand.
Still, as we wrote last week, a well-organized West campaign could get him on most state ballots if it acted quickly. Oklahoma is one of three states, alongside Colorado and Louisiana, where a small fee is all it takes for ballot access. (Colorado's ballot closes Aug. 5, Louisiana's Aug. 21.) In Vermont, all ballot requirements have been waived due to the pandemic, and the deadline doesn't come until Aug. 3. It's too late for a new candidate to make the ballot in Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina or Texas, but that's it.
West's mum approach to campaigning has given election-watchers a mystery: What is he doing to get on the rest of these ballots? Michigan's deadline passed today at 4 p.m., with no West filing.
The only poll to ask voters about a West candidacy found him at 2 percent, far from the 15 percent support he'd need to make televised presidential debates, per the rules of the commission that hosts them. The question that could face pollsters: Whether to include West at all. Unless there are lawsuits that change the ballot access process in the seven aforementioned states, more than a quarter of Americans wouldn't be able to vote for him. Third-party candidates in the past have struggled to get included by pollsters even if they had near-universal ballot access — indeed, they've sued over it — but few had the name recognition of West.
As Elizabeth Warren continued to hold events on behalf of Joe Biden, the push for the only white woman still in the Veep hunt picked up steam. On Wednesday, the liberal group Data for Progress released polling that found independent voters most interested in a vice president with experience “working across the aisle,” “fighting corruption,” and “fighting to lower health care costs.”
This, argued DFP, showed an electorate interested in the strengths displayed by Warren. Asked who'd be the most “effective” president, 13 percent of independents said Warren, 8 percent said Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and 7 percent said Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California. Asked who'd be most effective on the economy specifically, 14 percent of those voters said Warren, with competitors again in single digits.
“One of the few areas of weakness for Biden in polling is the economy,” Data for Progress's Sean McElwee said. “A Warren Vice President pick would shore him up on the economic recovery and the coronavirus pandemic in battleground states, the top two issues for voters.”
Separately, civil rights activists Angela Peoples and Phillip Agnew wrote a Washington Post op-ed arguing that Warren, more than other candidates mentioned for the VP role, “consistently challenges the status quo on behalf of working people, particularly in the black community … offers detailed policy prescriptions to remake our economy and strengthen our democracy, and … has clearly articulated the centrality of race, gender and class in the persistence of structural inequality.”
… 19 days until primaries in Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington
… 21 days until primaries in Tennessee
… 23 days until primaries in Hawaii
… 26 days until primaries in Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont and Wisconsin
… 32 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 42 days until the Republican National Convention
… 50 days until some absentee ballots start going out
… 110 days until the general election