/Vulnerable Democrats hoard campaign cash for 2020 House battle

Vulnerable Democrats hoard campaign cash for 2020 House battle

Lauren Underwood

The overwhelming majority of Democrats’ crucial battleground seats are freshmen, including Rep. Lauren Underwood, who raised over $700,000 in her home district. | Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Neither two dozen presidential candidates nor post-2018 complacency could slow the torrent of campaign cash raised by the congressional Democrats who delivered the House majority last year.

Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission ahead of this week’s deadline show Democrats stockpiling cash to protect their 19-seat majority — but Republicans are also gearing up to shore up their remaining vulnerable members and mount strong campaigns to challenge Democrats for the majority in 2020.

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The burgeoning financial arms race is evident in the numbers: A majority of vulnerable Democrats — a total of 31 members — raised more than $500,000 in the second quarter alone, according to a POLITICO analysis of fundraising reports.

It’s an impressive figure that Democratic strategists say defied some expectations that the party would be unable to maintain enthusiasm for their new crop of freshmen, even as dozens of presidential candidates present themselves as the next shiny objects for donors.

“I think what we’ve seen from the beginning here, even as the presidential [race] is taking off, is that people are recognizing the importance of keeping the House,” said Jared Smith, spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Those Democrats have been buoyed by ActBlue, the near-universal Democratic online fundraising platform, which announced Wednesday that $420 million in donations to Democratic organizations and campaigns (including presidential campaigns) flowed through the platform in the first six months of the year.

“Their online donors continue to give. And we knew very early on in 2018 that if we helped them make the investments … [with] these small online donors, members will have an ability to build these relationships and create a renewable resource, with just makes a huge difference in the ability to raise,” said Dan Sena, who was the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s executive director for the 2018 cycle.

Even Republicans acknowledge Democrats’ strong fundraising — though they suggest some donors may be giving money to incumbents elected in the 2018 wave who won’t survive with President Donald Trump on the ballot.

“For the most part, yes, they had good numbers. But in a lot of these districts, the reason they’re making so much money is because their donors know how difficult it is for them to win,” said Bob Salera, spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “They have some serious pro-Trump districts they’re trying to defend with Trump on the ballot.”

It’s not uncommon for most members to ramp up their fundraising as the cycle progresses, but all but five Democrats in the party committee’s battleground program beat their own fundraising numbers from last quarter — a sign that House campaigns have only gained momentum as national attention begins to drift toward the presidential contest.

The overwhelming majority of Democrats’ crucial battleground seats are freshmen, and 26 sit in districts that voted for Trump in 2016.

The party’s star fundraisers include some of those freshmen, like Reps. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) and Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), who each raised over $700,000 in their red districts back home.

“Any idea that you can’t be a moderate or can’t be a Democrat in a red district and still raise money, that goes right out the window,” said Sena, the former DCCC executive director.

All but two of the Democrats’ most vulnerable members — Reps. Matt Cartwright and Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania — raised over $300,000 in the quarter.

Many of the top-raising Democrats did so while keeping their pledges not to accept corporate PAC money, including this quarter’s biggest winner: Rep. Katie Porter of California, who raised the most at just over $1 million. End Citizens United, a Democratic outside group that has been on the vanguard of the anti-corporate PAC movement, said 19 freshmen members of Congress it has endorsed in battleground districts raised more than $500,000 in the quarter.

“Grassroots Democratic donors realize how a Democratic House majority matters” even in a presidential year, said Ian Russell, a former DCCC deputy executive director.

“From a tactical perspective, they’re just doing what they need to be doing,” Russell said on Democrats in districts Trump carried in 2018. “You can’t predict the weather, but you can prepare.”

Some Republican challengers to battleground Democrats raised significant sums on their own, including Wesley Hunt in Texas’ 7th District, Tom Kean in New Jersey’s 7th District and Michelle Steel in California’s 48th District.

But just one GOP candidate outraised the battleground Democrat they were hoping to unseat: Republican Young Kim raised $401,000 — outpacing freshman Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Calif.), who only narrowly defeated Kim in 2018. Cisneros is a former lottery winner who self-funded significant portions of his 2018 campaign.

Endangered Democrats are not just raising a lot of money — they’re banking it as well, stockpiling resources for what’s expected to be tough reelection battles across the board.

Thirteen of the Frontline Democrats reported at least $1 million in cash on hand, which is the amount of money candidates have in their campaign bank accounts as of June 30. An additional seven have more than $900,000.

Money doesn’t assure success. As of the end of the second quarter in 2017, nine Republicans in districts rated at the time as battlegrounds by the Cook Political Report had more than $1 million in cash on hand. Eight of the nine either were defeated in the 2018 midterms or retired rather than seeking reelection.

For years, Republicans have tried to replicate Democrats’ small-dollar success. With Trump — a prolific small-dollar fundraising machine — in office, party officials coalesced around their response to ActBlue, called WinRed. But the platform’s launch was delayed, only recently getting off the ground, and top officials are strong-arming a potential competitor out of the market.

“We’re not going to catch ActBlue in a single cycle, but the hope is that as WinRed gets fired up, people are going to increase their digital fundraising,” Salera said. “By the third, fourth quarter it’ll be spun up, and candidates will see results.”

It is far from only bad news for Republicans, however. Incumbents in the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Patriot Program”, the GOP equivalent to the Democrats’ “Frontline” program, also had strong quarters. Collectively, the nine members in the program raised $4.5 million, with Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) raising the most at $701,000. None of the nine have over $1 million on hand.

Democrats also saw two endangered members — both of whom sit in Trump districts — with relatively weak quarters. Minnesota Reps. Dean Phillips and Collin Peterson both raised less than $200,000, a potential sign of weakness for GOP challengers, though neither Democrat is formally considered one of the party’s more endangered seats.

Phillips, too, comes from considerable personal wealth and could self-fund portions of his campaign.

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