Within one week of announcing that she’d challenge GOP Sen. Susan Collins in Maine, Democrat Sara Gideon raised more than $1 million — nearly half of what Collins’ challenger six years ago raised for the entire two-year cycle.
But Collins also shattered her own fundraising record, topping $2 million in a quarter for the first time in her Senate career. The targeted Republican incumbent has already raised more money this cycle than she did for the entirety of her 2014 reelection.
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In Senate battlegrounds across the map, Democratic challengers are launching their campaigns with substantial fundraising hauls, relying on small-dollar donors to jump out of the gate with significant amounts of cash. But Senate Republicans, who are mostly on defense this cycle, are also setting a blistering pace, and incumbents are using established fundraising networks to stockpile formidable war chests.
The result is a massive sum of money already flowing into Senate races — especially to incumbents or challengers with official or tacit party backing.
“Republicans are in an incumbent-driven cycle. Incumbents usually have an advantage raising money,” said J.B. Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, an outside group aligned with Democratic leadership. “I would imagine they’re surprised at the level of success Democratic candidates are already having.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are confident in the fundraising of their incumbents, many of whom are first-term senators who helped flip the majority six years ago. Except for Sen. Jim Risch in ruby-red Idaho, every GOP senator up for reelection next year topped $1 million in the second quarter, with six incumbents topping $2 million. All incumbents in battleground races but one — Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst — raised more than in the previous quarter. Every Republican incumbent except Arizona Sen. Martha McSally ended the quarter with an advantage over their Democratic opponents in cash on hand — in some cases to a massive degree.
“It shows these vulnerable Republicans are not as vulnerable as Democrats think,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor.
For Democrats, most of their success came in short time frames. Cal Cunningham of North Carolina, who switched from the lieutenant governor’s race to the Senate race in mid-June, raised $500,000 in just two weeks. Theresa Greenfield of Iowa, who was endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, raised more than $600,000 in less than a month. Gideon, the speaker of the Maine state House, raised her total in just a week. And last week, Democrat Amy McGrath in Kentucky hauled in $2.5 million in the first day after announcing her challenge to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“it just shows you that they’re working hard. They’re talking to their voters, and there’s a response to that,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
A full picture for Democrats isn’t likely to emerge until this fall and winter, when candidates will have to prove whether they can continue the pace of their first weeks over the long haul. Sustained fundraising, especially with small-dollar donors, will be a critical challenge for Democratic candidates.
So far, any fears Democrats had that the party’s small donors — bombarded with a flood of presidential candidates and the since-elected members of Congress fueled by 2018’s “green wave” of cash — wouldn’t mobilize behind Senate candidates has been unwarranted.
“I would not lower expectations on these folks,” said Martha McKenna, a veteran strategist who ran the independent-expenditure arm of the DSCC in 2018. “My guess is that [small-dollar] donors keep their foot on the gas because it’s critical that we beat Trump — but feels to me like people understand these Senate races are key to stabilizing our country.”
Arizona is shaping up to be the most expensive race in the nation. McSally, who was appointed after losing a Senate race last cycle and is running to finish the term, led all incumbent senators with $3.4 million raised for the quarter — outpacing several members of GOP leadership who are on the ballot next year. But McSally was still outraised by Democratic challenger Mark Kelly, the former astronaut and Navy veteran, who has now hauled in more than $4 million in consecutive quarters since launching his bid and raised more than any other Senate candidate for either party.
Kelly has an edge over McSally in cash on hand, with $5.9 million compared to $4.4 million. Kelly has already raised more than one-third of the total amount now-Sen. Kyrsten Sinema raised for her successful 2018 Senate bid, which was the first time a Democrat won a Senate race in the state in three decades.
Sen. Todd Young (Ind.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said McSally was “holding her own” and was at “rough parity” with Kelly.
Barrett Marson, a veteran Arizona GOP strategist who runs a super PAC backing McSally, said her fundraising was impressive given that she had to do it while adjusting to her first six months as a senator.
“She has hit the ground running [and] raised a substantial amount of money,” Marson said.
In some races, Republicans hold a clear edge so far. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) raised $2.5 million and led all senators with $9 million in cash on hand — roughly 75 percent of what Cornyn spent on his entire 2014 race. Democrat MJ Hegar, who is challenging him, topped $1 million but will face a stiff challenge keeping pace with Cornyn.
Both of the parties most vulnerable senators posted strong quarters. In Alabama, Democratic Sen. Doug Jones topped $2 million and raised more than his GOP challengers combined. Meanwhile, none of the potential challengers emerged from the pack based on fundraising totals — though controversial former judge Roy Moore raised a paltry $17,000 in the week following his announcement, an early measure of relief for Republicans who believe he would lose the race as the nominee.
In Colorado, the situation was reversed: Republican Sen. Cory Gardner topped $2 million for the second quarter and has a large cash advantage over any challenger. Democrats all had varying degrees of success, meaning the crowded primary isn’t stopping money from flowing to the race. Former state Sen. Mike Johnston led the pack with $1.6 million and has a strong cash advantage since he entered the race early in the year. But another Democrat, Dan Baer, topped $1 million, and two others — Andrew Romanoff and John Walsh — raised mid-six figures, leaving the primary field still wide open.
Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.), running for reelection in presidential swing states, raised $1.9 million and $2,4 million, respectively. John James, who lost the 2018 Senate race in Michigan and is now challenging Peters, boasted the strongest numbers of any GOP challenger, raising $1.5 million since launching his campaign in June.
Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and David Perdue of Georgia, two Republicans both likely to face competitive challengers, improved on their fundraising totals from the previous quarter. Early fundraising problems can be a warning sign for Senate incumbents. But Josh Holmes, a top McConnell adviser, said there were “no real weak spots” so far this year.
“Everybody seems to be pulling [their] weight,” Holmes said.
Young, the NRSC chairman, also pointed out that his committee has outpaced the DSCC on fundraising so far this cycle, raising $28.9 million through May 31, to just $22.6 million for the DSCC.
“We’ve broken fundraising records, and that’s mostly because of the quality of candidates that we have,” Young said.
Still, Democrats were buoyed by the early effort from their challengers, especially since some potential candidates with established fundraising bases passed on battleground races earlier this cycle. And though there were some concerns in the party that the presidential race would eat up small-dollar fundraising, the dollars are flowing in fast and furious.
“We’re seeing a huge amount of small donors giving, which really speaks to the enthusiasm in the Democratic Party,” said Celinda Lake, a veteran Democratic strategist. “There was some concern that the presidential [race] would raid congressional and Senate fundraising, but it’s not. Candidates are really able to raise money.”