Fundraising fizzles for many in Tea Party

Many Tea Party candidates are fizzling with their fundraising — an early sign they might struggle to upend the entrenched incumbents they’re challenging in this year’s primary elections.

A number of more conservative candidates running against Republican incumbents have failed to impress in their most recent year-end fundraising reports. Meager hauls came from many Tea Party challengers, including Senate candidates in Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina and South Dakota who had been hoping to pull upsets, as well as from congressional candidates challenging Reps. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.).

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Conservative national strategists argue that, historically, Tea Party challengers don’t need to match their opponents’ fundraising; they just need to raise enough to run a strong campaign. 

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and past Senate primary winners Richard Mourdock (R) in Indiana, Christine O’Donnell (R) in Delaware and Sharron Angle (R) in Nevada defeated incumbents or establishment favorites despite being outspent by their more cash-flush opponents. 

This cycle, Tea Party activists point to Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel’s (R) strong fundraising quarter against Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) as evidence their message still resonates.

But McDaniel’s impressive haul of $500,000 against the veteran Cochran’s meager $340,000 was the exception for the fourth quarter period instead of the rule. McDaniel has been endorsed by all four major conservative outside groups: Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), FreedomWorks and the Madison Project.

Ultimately, candidates still need to raise enough money to gain attention and stir the pot — and few of those running this year have managed to make their bank accounts match their bravado at unseating longtime members.

“A lot of these candidates are not viable on their own. It’s frustrating — you can’t beat somebody with nobody,” said one national conservative strategist. “Fundraising isn’t the only sign of viability, but it’s important.”

SCF President Matt Hoskins said some of the same qualities that make for successful grassroots candidates make it difficult to raise big money.

“Grassroots candidates do not have ties to donors with deep pockets. They aren’t the favorites of the big government donor class, and many of them have never run for office before,” Hoskins said, explaining why some of his group’s endorsed candidates reported low cash totals.

Many of the candidates with the weakest fundraising hauls have failed to secure the backing of national conservative groups, making it even harder to fundraise. But some who do have support from influential organizations are struggling as well.

Milton Wolf, Sen. Pat Roberts’s (R-Kan.) primary challenger, brought in only $268,000 in the fourth quarter — less than half of the $600,000 Roberts raised — including a $30,000 personal loan. Roberts has 12 times as much cash on hand as Wolf, who is backed by the SCF and Madison Project

Retired Air Force veteran Rob Maness (R) has the backing of both those groups too but only raised $240,000 and has just $130,000 in the bank for his campaign against Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). Landrieu has $6.4 million in the bank, while Cassidy has $4.2 million.

Attorney Bryan Smith (R) was the Club For Growth’s first endorsement of its “Primary My Congressman” push. But Smith, running against Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) ally Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), actually saw his fundraising haul shrink by half from the previous quarter. Smith, who’s also been endorsed by Madison Project, dropped from collecting $276,000 in the third quarter to only $111,000 in the fourth quarter. Simpson has more than double his challenger’s cash, with close to $800,000 in the bank to Smith’s $375,000.

“It’s Idaho. In other states, it’s easier to raise money from in-state. Bryan’s cut off from the traditional PAC money from Washington that Simpson is getting. It’s because of the PAC money that Simpson has the advantage,” Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said.

But the Club for Growth’s other candidates, most of whom weren’t running against incumbents, all had big fundraising hauls. Reps. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Justin Amash (R-Mich.), McDaniel and Nebraska Senate candidate Ben Sasse (R) all posted impressive fundraising figures for the quarter.

The Club often prides itself on having a higher threshold in its endorsement process than other groups — and when it does endorse, it delivers a lot more in fundraising help and outside spending.

“We have a very specific model we think has served us well,” Keller said. “We’re more than happy to be very large contributors to a candidate through our PAC, but we’re not going to be the candidate’s finance committee. A candidate that cannot raise money on their own is a candidate who is weak and not viable. That’s not the only determining factor in making an endorsement, but it’s certainly a sign of viability.”

Those candidates who haven’t yet attracted substantial national attention struggled even more. 

Katrina Pierson, a Tea Party activist challenging Sessions, raised just $40,000 in the last three months and has just $35,000 cash on hand heading into her March 4 primary, despite drawing endorsements from FreedomWorks and Rafael Cruz, the father of the Texas senator and Tea Party favorite. Sessions, the House Rules Committee chairman and former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, raised $420,000 in the same period and has $1.26 million in the bank.

Dennis Linthicum, running against current NRCC Chairman Walden, raised just $12,000 for the quarter, while Walden has banked $1.66 million for the race.

“Do conservatives want to beat Greg Walden? Yes. Is Dennis Linthicum’s fundraising impressing anybody? No,” one national conservative strategist said.

Coast Guard veteran Art Halvorson (R) raised less than $9,000 against Shuster and has less than $80,000 for his race, compared to the House Transportation Committee chairman’s $550,000 quarter and $1.36 million war chest.

In Arizona’s 1st District, Tea Party favorite and state Rep. Adam Kwasman (R), who’s been endorsed by FreedomWorks, brought in half as much as Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin (R), the establishment pick to face Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.).

Some Senate hopefuls, like Tennessee state Rep. Joe Carr and Kentucky businessman Matt Bevin, significantly picked up their fundraising pace from the third quarter, but even their improved hauls don’t put them in a position to be Goliath-killers. 

Carr raised $250,000 in the fourth quarter, a considerable uptick from the $52,000 he brought in the third quarter, but he has $405,000 cash on hand — a little more than a seventh of the $3.18 million Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has in the bank for his August race.

And while Bevin drew $900,000 in the fourth quarter, all of it from outside donors and PACs, Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) $10.9 million campaign bank account means any challenger would have to come closer to matching his pace to compete with him. Bevin has the backing of most of the major conservative groups but hasn't been endorsed by Club for Growth.

And while conservatives are frequently incised by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C), none of his four challengers showed much muscle, not raising even a quarter of what the incumbent raised in the last month. Public relations executive Nancy Mace (R) had the biggest haul with $256,000 but has $240,000 in the bank for the race, compared to Graham’s $7.6 million war chest.

But SCF head Hoskins argued the fundraising disparity ultimately wouldn’t matter if the candidates raise enough to be heard — and groups like the SCF plan to help them do just that. 

“Conservative candidates are more aligned with the values of Republican primary voters, and they can win, if they have enough money to get their message out,” he said. “They don’t have to raise as much money as their opponents to win.”

This post was updated at 9:47 a.m. to correct incorrect information.