In the battle for Congress, Democrats are winning the money game. But will it be enough for them to overtake Republicans?
In what is shaping up to be the most expensive U.S. congressional election in history, Democrats have had a distinct advantage in fundraising over Republicans throughout the midterm election cycle as they seek to break the GOP’s stranglehold on Congress.
While Republicans are widely expected to preserve their slim 51-to-49-seat majority in the U.S. Senate and possibly expand it, polls show the Democrats poised to take back the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in seven years. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to retake the House.
WATCH: Democrats Gain Congressional Fundraising Advantage
On the ballot
All 435 House seats as well as 35 of 100 Senate seats will be on the ballot next month. Candidates vying for those coveted seats have raised a record $2.3 billion from individual donors and political action committees (PACs) through Sept. 30, according to the latest filings this week with the Federal Election Commission.
Overall, Democrats outraised Republicans by an unprecedented $410 million. In House races, Democratic candidates raised more than $850 million from individuals and PACs, compared with $577 million generated by Republicans. In Senate contests, Democrats hauled in nearly $490 million, compared with $353 million garnered by Republicans.
The average House campaign spends a little more than $1 million during a two-year election cycle, yet 30 Democrats have raised more than $2 million each so far this cycle.
In the most expensive non-special House race this cycle, a closely fought contest in Southern California between Republican Young Kim and Democrat Gil Cisneros has cost more than $20 million. Among Senate contests, the most expensive race is between incumbent Republican Ted Cruz and Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who have raised a combined total of nearly $100 million.
Republicans fared as well or better than the Democrats in raising campaign cash from corporate PACs, those high-powered fundraising operations with minimal disclosure requirements or spending restrictions. But the Democrats crushed Republicans in raising individual contributions through the internet or campaign fundraising events. O’Rourke, a U.S. House member from El Paso, Texas, reported last week that he had raised a record $30 million during the third quarter from 800,000 contributors.
Federal campaign finance law prevents individuals from contributing more than $2,700 to a congressional campaign committee in any one election, while allowing traditional political action committees to donate up to $5,000. However, so-called independent-expenditure committees, or “super PACS,” can raise and spend unlimited amounts to advance their causes or political parties.
“There is a tremendous amount of small-dollar energy going on the Democratic side,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“Democratic House candidates are raising small-dollar donations from donors across the country, who are doing what they can trying to win the House back for Democrats. Republicans are trying to counteract that with third-party groups and outside spending.”
Fundraising edge, cash on hand
Moreover, Democratic challengers have outraised Republican opponents in a majority of several dozen House races seen as highly competitive. And as the campaign enters its final two weeks, data show Democrats have more cash on hand than Republicans, something that will allow them to fund a last-minute push to mobilize voters.
Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization, said the Democrats’ enormous fundraising edge is “fairly significant and fairly unusual.”
“The trend with election spending is just almost always up due to a variety of factors,” Bryner said. “But this election cycle we have a huge crop of well-funded Democratic challengers and that’s going to increase spending across the board as the incumbents they’re facing try to counteract that spending.”
Money is the lifeblood of American campaigning. Candidates and their consultants use funds to buy expensive TV airtime, pay for personnel and other campaign expenses, and hold events to raise more funds. Advertising represents the single largest expense of a congressional campaign.
Money will continue to pour in throughout the last two weeks of the campaign, helped by some deep-pocketed benefactors seeking to tip the balance in key races.
Last week, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he was giving $20 million to the Democrats’ Senate super PAC. Most of the money will go toward buying TV airtime for embattled Democratic candidates. That brings to nearly $100 million the amount the billionaire businessman has contributed to the Democrats this cycle, making him one of the largest donors.
“Given the rise of super PACs in the post-Citizens United era, it’s possible for people to make those huge donations late in the game,” Bryner said, referring to a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that found spending limits on outside organizations unconstitutional.
“Right now, this is the Wild West in the United States,” said Martin Frost, a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and now president of the bipartisan Association of Former Members of Congress. “People can put as much money as they want in politics. Some of that money is disclosed and some of it is not.”
With Republican incumbents struggling in several dozen key races, party leaders and groups have begun to cut their losses, pulling funding from races they think the Democrats will win and reallocating resources to more competitive contests.
In its first act of triage in late September, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC, canceled a planned $3.1 million ad buy in two districts in Michigan and Colorado where the Republican incumbents are struggling, the Associated Press reported. That was followed by similar moves in several other congressional districts.
Infusions of cash or pulling the plug
Parties perform spending triage all the time. But the infusion of cash, such as Bloomberg’s $20 million donation, has put added pressure on the Republicans to pull the plug on uncompetitive races.
“What happens is races that are at the margins, where it’s just going to be a tough slog regardless, they’ll pull out of those races … and they’ll reallocate those resources into races where that $20 million by Bloomberg now may make a difference,” said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Just how much of a difference the Democrats’ money advantage will make remains to be seen. Money is not always a guarantor of electoral success.
In the 2016 presidential election, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suffered an upset despite spending $387 million more than billionaire businessman Donald Trump. In a special election for a congressional seat in Georgia last year, Democrat Jon Ossoff lost to Republican Karen Handel despite a $20 million fundraising advantage.
And O’Rourke’s massive fundraising advantage has failed to cut into Cruz’s substantial seven-point lead in the U.S. Senate race in Texas.
“A lot of people make a big deal about money and sort of think that’s the dark angel of American politics, but I can tell you there are … as many races there where the person with the most money loses as there are where that individual wins,” Steele said. “So at the end of the day, candidates still have to make a credible message, they still have to be credible themselves for the voters … to actually utilize the benefit of those dollars that are getting poured into that campaign.”