Six months into Democrats’ control of the House, the “green wave” that helped put them there shows no sign of ebbing, even as the party’s donors look to oust President Trump by contributing to a crowded lineup of two dozen White House candidates.
All told, Democratic House candidates raised $17.6 million more than Republicans between April and June, according to a Washington Post analysis of quarterly fundraising reports. That gap could close as more GOP challengers announce their campaigns, but it represents a significant head start for Democrats.
Looking to 2020, Trump and other Republicans have settled on an aggressive strategy of elevating the most liberal members of the Democratic caucus, such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.), casting the congresswomen as far-left and un-American while trying to tie the rest of the party to them. But the early financial numbers show that the mostly moderate crop of Democratic freshmen will have substantial resources next year to counter that message — money they will need as Trump will be on the ballot.
“I wish they were all broke and poor, but they’re not — they’re rich and ready, so it will make it harder,” said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We had some good numbers, too, but we’ve got to do better if you’re going to get the majority back.”
Democrats gained 40 seats last year to seize control, and they hold a 235-197 advantage in the House. There is one independent, former Republican Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), and two vacancies.
What has especially concerned several Republican lawmakers and strategists who reviewed the early fundraising totals is that some of the GOP’s most prized recruits were outraised by Democratic incumbents.
Wesley Hunt, a highly touted African American retired Army officer, raised $513,000 for the quarter in the Houston-based 7th District of Texas. But Democratic incumbent Lizzie Fletcher raised $537,000 on top of the nearly $400,000 she had banked.
And in Iowa, where Republican David Young is seeking to reclaim his former seat from Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne, Young posted a respectable $359,700 haul. Axne, however, raised more than $603,000 — putting her total receipts over $1 million for the year.
An even more eye-popping total came from Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), who raised more than $1 million for the quarter, swamping her best-financed Republican opponents — Laguna Hills Mayor Don Sedgwick, who raised $480,142, and Mission Viejo Mayor Greg Raths, who raised $211,870.
Historically, Republicans have offset their deficit in direct campaign fundraising with heavy spending from their party committees and super PACs that can accept unlimited donations from individuals and corporations. But so far this year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has maintained an advantage, reporting more than $61 million in receipts.
The NRCC, according to a filing Saturday, raised $44.5 million. The major Democratic and Republican super PACs, House Majority PAC and the Congressional Leadership Fund, are not required to report their totals until the end of the month.
Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.), the NRCC chairman, told reporters at the Christian Science Monitor Breakfast on Thursday that fundraising “isn’t the ultimate determining factor” in the upcoming election and argued Democratic campaigns generally tend to spend more than Republicans.
“I like to joke that it costs a lot more to sell a lie than it does the truth,” he said before adding: “We do need to keep it close. . . . We just can’t let it get so out of whack that our candidates can’t compete.”
The formula for these massive Democratic hauls is a combination of the old-fashioned — hours of “call time” to known political donors — plus, for some, a mastery of small-dollar fundraising that can be generated by viral videos and social media stardom. And Rep. Cheri Bustos (Ill.), the DCCC chairman, said Trump’s dominant presence continues to motivate donors of all stripes.
“People everywhere throughout the country know that we are that firewall that prevents Trump from acting on his worst impulses, and they don’t want to lose that,” Bustos said. “You don’t raise the kind of money that these brand new members are raising if you’re not generating a lot of enthusiasm one way or another. It’s because of what they’re standing up for, what they’re fighting against.”
Porter, for instance, garnered national attention with her questioning of JPMorgan Chase Chairman Jamie Dimon, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and others during Financial Services Committee hearings. In an interview, she credited that attention with helping to attract the notice of donors who might otherwise lose touch with her work in Washington. Her average donation amount, she said, was $42.
“I bring a lot of passion and preparation to my hearings, and I think those conversations and what we’re doing in hearings matters, and so I want to be here to continue to do that work,” she said, explaining her focus on fundraising. “It’s hard to do the work of a congressperson when you are not an elected congressperson.”
But Republicans argue that the more Democrats cater to a national audience of liberal activists, the more they risk losing touch with the voters in their home districts. Porter is under attack from Republicans for backing an impeachment inquiry of Trump as well as a Medicare-for-all health plan.
Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) is facing a rematch with Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, whom he beat last year by about 2,000 votes. Londrigan raised $521,887 for the quarter vs. Davis’s $422,070, although Davis has more cash on hand.
“You’ve got to hand it to the Dems and give them some credit for being able to go out and get donors from throughout the nation to support candidates, but . . . when you have cities like New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles supporting candidates in central Illinois, their values may not be the values of the constituents that I serve,” Davis said.
Republicans are scrambling to build a small-dollar money machine of their own, throwing the institutional weight of the party behind a new WinRed portal meant to mimic the ActBlue platform that has powered the Democrats’ online fundraising for years. So far, the reviews are mixed, with many Republicans resisting party leaders’ efforts to shunt them into the new system.
Other GOP incumbents outraised for the quarter include Reps. Kenny Marchant (Tex.), Pete Olson (Tex.) and David Schweikert (Ariz.). Only one vulnerable Democratic freshman was outraised: Rep. Gil Cisneros (Calif.), who pumped $9 million of his personal wealth into his last campaign.
An early test for how much money will matter comes on Sept. 10, when voters in North Carolina’s GOP-tilting 9th Congressional District fill an open House seat. Democrat Dan McCready has more than $1.5 million on hand vs. the $184,000 banked by Republican Dan Bishop, although outside spending is expected to close that gap.
There are districts that are so Republican, even an ocean of Democratic money might not make a difference on Election Day. Last year, the opponents of Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) spent a combined $5.5 million to his $1.7 million; he won by eight percentage points. He was significantly outraised again in this most recent quarter by Democrat Brynne Kennedy.
“Way I look at it, that’s $5.5 million that couldn’t be spent against other Republicans,” McClintock said this week. “I’m good with that.”
Corection: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported that Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) was outraised by his Democratic challenger. Hurd raised $700,742 for the second quarter, while opponent Gina Ortiz Jones raised $587,527.