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Big donors fund state parties at record levels

Big donors fund state parties at record levels
© Greg Nash

Big donors and the two national party committees are funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to state Democratic and Republican political parties, representing huge investments in organizations that will spend heavily to turn out voters on Election Day.

A review of campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission shows state party organizations have collected more than $370 million through the end of August. In many battleground states, they are raising amounts comparable to a well-financed Senate candidate.

That money, experts and party operatives say, is spent more efficiently by state party organizations than by individual candidates.

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“It’s almost like the Costco of Democratic campaigns. When it comes to sending mail, for example, you can do it at a cheaper rate than anybody else. You can print larger runs,” said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “Because of the scale, you can do things in a way that other organizations or individual campaigns simply cannot.”

State parties have become important clearinghouses for full slates of candidates, all the way down the ballot. While President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 MORE and Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Brad Pitt narrates Biden ad airing during World Series MORE have the resources to compete for a battleground state like Ohio, candidates running a shoestring campaign for a state legislative seat or a county commission post rely on a party apparatus to get their message out.

“We’re responsible for Election Day operations, and for a lot of candidate support, everything by tradition flows through the state party for mail, for candidates,” said Jane Timken, who chairs the Ohio Republican Party.

Seven state Democratic parties have raised more than $10 million this year. Heads and tails above the rest is the Wisconsin Democratic Party, which pulled in $20 million through the end of August — almost 50 percent more than the state party raised in the entire 2016 election cycle.

Two Republican parties — in Florida and Texas — have raised more than $14 million each. Republican parties in California, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio are nearing the $10 million mark.

All told, state Democratic parties had raised $213 million through the end of August and kept just shy of $40 million in reserve for the post-Labor Day sprint. State Republican parties raised about $157 million, with $45 million still on hand.

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At the national level, Republican party committees retained a fundraising advantage. The Republican National Committee (RNC), the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee had raised a combined $891 million through the end of August; their Democratic counterparts had pulled in $696 million through the same period.

But Democrats are raising money at a faster clip in the closing weeks of the 2020 campaign. The three Democratic committees had $230 million in the bank at the end of August, compared to $197 million for Republicans.

That spending does not include outside groups, which have poured hundreds of millions of their own into advertising and ground operations. The Senate Majority PAC, which backs Democrats, and the Senate Leadership Fund, which supports Republicans, have spent a combined $160 million so far, according to federal election records. At least 27 groups have reported spending more than $10 million this year.

Both Democrats and Republicans are sending money to the battleground states that will determine who wins the White House and who controls the Senate. The funds flowing into those state party committees come from a combination of big donors and the national parties themselves.

In Wisconsin, more than 10 percent of the state Democratic Party’s money comes from a single donor — J.B. Pritzker, the governor of neighboring Illinois. Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, gave Wisconsin Democrats almost $2.5 million in June. George Soros is the state party’s second-largest individual contributor, chipping in almost $500,000.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) has funneled almost $2.3 million to Wisconsin, where polls show Biden leading Trump in a state the president narrowly won four years ago.

The Texas Republican Party has received much of its money with help from Sen. John CornynJohn CornynBiden's oil stance jars Democrats in tough races The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in The Hill's Campaign Report: Obama to hit the campaign trail l Biden's eye-popping cash advantage l New battleground polls favor Biden MORE (R), who is running for reelection. The party has received almost $1.8 million through a joint fundraising committee, Cornyn Majority Texas, that divides contributions between the incumbent’s campaign, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and an affiliated political action committee.

In other cases, states with few limits on campaign contributions are fueling other competitive states. Arizona’s Democratic Party has raised $13 million — including $700,000 from the South Carolina Democratic Party, $200,000 from the Florida Democratic Party and $100,000 each from the Missouri and Indiana parties.

“This is a classic money laundering thing from soft money days,” said Robin Kolodny, a campaign finance expert who chairs the political science department at Temple University. “It’s using the noncompetitive states to go ahead and funnel stuff to the competitive states.”

About a decade and a half after then-DNC Chairman Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy seeded political parties even in hard-to-win states, both the DNC and the RNC have made a point of financing their state and local affiliates.

The RNC launched a campaign it calls Project GROW, offering support to local parties through a Washington-based development team and regional political directors. The committee has financed data staffers in key states.

The DNC has its own program, dubbed the Battleground Buildup, created in anticipation of a long fight for the right to face Trump in November. Democrats anticipated their eventual nominee would begin the general election essentially broke, and the party spent money bolstering state affiliates to lay the groundwork for the general election even before Biden became the nominee-in-waiting.

State parties typically spend much of their money building up ground teams that can identify and turn out millions of voters, Kolodny said. But with the coronavirus pandemic raging, many of those field plans have been delayed or revised.

Still, that hasn’t stopped the money from rolling in.

“With the pandemic, we had to sort of shift gears,” Timken said. “But we’ve been able to over the last three years establish some good relationships with donors who are motivated especially this year by the presidential election.”