Dems dominate GOP in cash race for key seats

Greg Nash

Democratic House campaigns made significant fundraising gains in the final months of 2017, putting the party in a strong position to fight for the House majority in the midterms. 

Dozens of House Democratic challengers outraised their Republican incumbents in the last three months of the year, while only a small handful of Republican challengers outraised the Democratic incumbents they hope to face. 

And Democratic challengers in races targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), House Democrats’ campaign arm, are in far better financial shape than GOP candidates in races targeted by national Republicans. 

The fourth-quarter money race is far from the only determining factor — many Republican incumbents still have higher cash reserves than their Democratic challengers, and those incumbents will have the luxury of avoiding crowded and expensive primaries.

But the fundraising boost gives Democrats yet another jolt of optimism as they approach the midterms, hopeful that discontent with Congress and President Trump’s low approval rating can help the party make a push to take the majority. 

“I’m never going to be one to say that Trump is going to be the singular factor to push all these candidates over the top, but Trump will shave a number of points off the deficit,” said Matt Thornton, a former DCCC communications director. “We have these candidates not only operating with a tailwind at the polls, but they also have a better message … that’s why we are seeing them raise more.”

“In a race that last cycle would have been a double-digit race, maybe that’s a single-digit race now. If you have a shorter distance to travel to get to your 50-plus-one, that’s a less expensive and more winnable race.” 

Of the dozens of Democratic challengers who outpaced GOP incumbents, 22 of them are in races listed on the nonpartisan election handicapper Cook Political Report’s 86 top battleground House races. Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to take back the majority.

The race for the seat held by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who is being investigated by the FBI over alleged use of campaign funds for personal expenses, is a striking example of Democrats’ fundraising advantage.

Two Democratic candidates significantly outraised Hunter, who pulled in a paltry $52,000 for the fourth quarter. Retired Navy SEAL Josh Butner raised $107,000, while former Obama administration official Ammar Campa-Najjar brought in $176,000. 

Shamus Sayed, a third Democratic challenger, raised $82,750 and lent himself another $100,000.

Republicans have held firm in Hunter’s San Diego-area seat since 2003. But Democrats’ high-dollar hauls are raising red flags for the GOP, especially after two vulnerable Republican incumbents in California announced they wouldn’t seek reelection in 2018. 

Dozens of other Democrats are also outraising Republican incumbents in safer seats — districts that haven’t seen a viable Democratic challenge in years, but could become competitive in a wave election. 

“Where parties tend to lose the House aren’t the swing seats that swing their way,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who used to run the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

“You have those R+5, R+7 districts where Republicans are not wide awake, and then those seats slip away.”

Davis highlighted Rep. Tom Garrett’s (R-Va.) seat, where the sitting congressman raised just $91,000 in the fourth quarter. Democrats Leslie Cockburn and Roger Dean Huffstetler both outraised him by about $100,000, while a third Democrat, Ben Cullop, edged him out by about $15,000. 

“Republicans need to look at that second tier, because if Democrats break into that, it’ll be a big night,” Davis said.

{mosads}“At the end of the day, Republicans are going to have plenty of money in these key races. It’s in the second-tier districts where the Republican isn’t paying attention where the DCCC can drop $1 million … and steal a seat.”

Meanwhile, only two Republican challengers raised more than the Democratic incumbent they could face in the general election. 

Republican Peter Tedeschi, a former convenience store executive, raised $323,352, while Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.) brought in $168,341. And in Pennsylvania, Republican John Chrin, former investment banker, raised $359,611, compared to Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright’s $267,000.

The Democratic fundraising advantage also extends to races targeted by the DCCC and NRCC.

The DCCC has named 18 candidates to the committee’s “Red to Blue” program, which highlights promising candidates running in competitive seats. Candidates named to the program will receive fundraising and organizational support from the DCCC.

The average “Red to Blue” candidate raised about $377,000 and has about $560,000 in the bank.

The NRCC has a similar program to boost top candidates, called its “Young Gun” program. The committee has 46 challengers who have reached the designation of “On the Radar,” the first phase of the program.

The average “On the Radar” candidate raised about $153,000, and has about $300,000 cash on hand. 

Despite strong Democratic fundraising, several factors are boosting Republicans as they look to hold on to the House majority.

Republican outside groups have moved early to shore up at-risk seats. The most notable effort comes from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House leadership, which spent almost $14 million last year. Among other things, that money went into special elections and field offices in 28 key districts.

“The intensity is through the roof for the Democrats, that’s a huge boost going into a midterm,” Davis said. “But we saw in Georgia’s 6th that if Republicans spend enough time to get their vote out, [they win].”

Most Republicans incumbents also won’t have to slog it out in costly primaries, while Democrats’ candidate boom could result in tough primary fights that bleed off Democratic campaign treasuries.

That’s the case in places like Washington’s 8th District, where GOP Rep. Dave Reichert’s impending retirement opens up a seat in a district that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. 

But while Democrats are gearing up for a crowded primary, the Republican candidate is sitting on a sizable campaign treasury that he won’t have to touch until the general election.

Republican Dino Rossi raised $740,000 last quarter, bringing his cash reserves to more than $1 million. 

But on the Democratic side, five candidates each raised more than $100,000 in 2017. That means Democrats will have to put some of their money into primary campaigns, only to emerge into a general election fight with Rossi and his mountain of cash. 

Some Republican strategists attribute the weak fundraising to the Republican failure to repeal ObamaCare. Still, they believe that the GOP tax bill — and its improvement in opinion polls — will encourage donors to reopen their wallets in the coming months.

“There has certainly been a boost of enthusiasm over the past month and a half that I don’t think that the Federal Election Commission numbers would have fully reflected,” said Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, referring to the most recently filed fundraising totals. 

“My guess is that those things are picking up, so right now I’m not terribly concerned,” Heye said. “If we’re having this conversation in six months, I’m terribly concerned.”

Kaitlin Milliken contributed.

Tags Bill Keating Dave Reichert Donald Trump Duncan Hunter Hillary Clinton Matt Cartwright Tom Garrett
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