Senate: Democrats Dominate 1st Quarter Fundraising

Senate Republican incumbents and challengers alike had a tough 4th quarter of 2017 when it came to fundraising. There were several explanations as to why, but GOP strategists expected the situation to correct itself in the first quarter that ended on March 31.

By and large, GOP incumbents had a better quarter while many challengers continued to struggle. Across the aisle, Democratic incumbents and challengers alike posted another solid quarter, with most incumbents holding a significant cash-on-hand advantage over their GOP challengers.


When it comes to 1st quarter receipts, Republican U.S. Reps. Martha McSally in Arizona and Lou Barletta in Pennsylvania outraised their Democratic opponents. Looking at contributions only, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee outraised former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, but Bredesen put $1.4 million of his own money into the race, and thus had a higher receipt total. When it comes to challengers McSally and Blackburn are proving to be the Republican fundraising rock stars at this point in the cycle. Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott didn’t announce his candidacy until April 9, so he did not file a 1st quarter report. His campaign boasted this week that it had raised $3.2 million in three weeks (not including Scott’s personal contributions) roughly equaling Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson’s contribution total for the entire 1st quarter.

By virtue of putting personal money into their races, Republican challengers Mike Braun (IN), Bob Hugin (NJ), Jim Renacci (OH) and Don Blankenship (WV) outraised the Democratic incumbents they hope to face in November. While all money is green and buys the same things, contributions (as opposed to personal loans) are an expression of support for a candidate. With the exception of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez in New Jersey, the Democratic incumbents still had significant cash-on-hand advantages over these self-funders.

On the Democratic side, both incumbents and challengers had a successful 1st quarter. Among incumbents, U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri ($3.95 million), Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin ($3.7 million), Bill Nelson of Florida ($3.4 million), Sherrod Brown of Ohio ($3.3 million) and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts ($3.1 million) led the class in receipts. No Republican incumbent hit the $2 million mark.

As for Democratic challengers, Jacky Rosen (NV) and Beto O’Rourke (TX) raised more than the Republican incumbents they are challenging in November. O’Rourke outraised GOP U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz by an astounding $4.5 million to $1.9 million. Rosen raised $2.6 million to Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller’s $1.1 million.

Cash-On-Hand Disparity:

As important as fundraising is, what’s left in the bank is also critical. Generally, incumbents nearly always have a cash-on-hand advantage over challengers. In fact, Cruz and Menendez are the only two incumbents who had less money in the bank than their opponents at the end of the first quarter. O’Rourke had about $800,000 more than Cruz, while Hugin had $1.4 million more cash on hand than Menendez as of March 31. Throughout 2017, Menendez was focused on his trial on 14 federal counts of corruption, including bribery, conspiracy and making false statements. On November 16, the trial ended in a hung jury, forcing the judge to declare a mistrial. Menendez’s focus last year was more on raising money for his legal defense fund than for his re-election. In April, the Senate Ethics Committee issued a four-page letter that “severely admonished” Menendez for violating Senate ethics rules. It will be interesting to see whether this has any impact on his fundraising in the 2nd quarter. Hugin’s cash-on-hand advantage can also be attributed to the significant amount of personal money ($7.5 million) he put in the race in the 1st quarter.  Cruz’s deficit is largely the result of O’Rourke ability to attract millions in small-dollar contributions; 45 percent of the Democrat’s 1st quarter contributions were $200 or less.

The challenge for Republicans right now is that Democrats, especially incumbents, have a significant cash-on-hand advantage over their GOP challengers. Looking at the races in the Toss Up column, the only one in which the cash on hand is near parity is Nevada where Heller has a 1.3-1 advantage over Rosen. The other Republican who had more money in the bank than the Democrat was in Tennessee where Blackburn enjoyed a 3.4-1 advantage over Bredesen. There are two caveats here: first, Bredesen can continue to put personal money in the race, and second, he was on television with two ads in the first quarter, spending more than Blackburn.

In every other case, Democrats had at least a 2.6-1 advantage over Republicans in cash on hand. Among likely GOP nominees, McCaskill had a 5.4-1 advantage of Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley. Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp had a 2.9-1 cash advantage over Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer. The eventual GOP nominees in Indiana and West Virginia, which hold primaries on Tuesday, will be much further behind Democratic incumbents Joe Donnelly and Joe Manchin, respectively, as both primaries are proving to be expensive races that will leave the nominee with severely depleted cash reserves.

In many cases, outside money from campaign committee independent expenditures and super PACs can close the gap, but such spending can’t close a chasm. Geography also matters in this equation. A 2-1 cash advantage in an inexpensive state like North Dakota is more easily remedied than a similar advantage in a more expensive state like Missouri. This is why McCaskill’s 5.4-1 advantage over Hawley is so concerning to GOP strategists.

This chart shows Democrats’ cash-on-hand advantage over Republicans in the races in the Toss Up column.

Unitemized Contributions:

Unitemized contributions – those that are $200 or less – are starting to make up a higher proportion of a candidate’s total contributions. And this explains the avalanche of email fundraising solicitations that flood supporters’ inboxes, especially toward the end of a quarter, as online solicitations account for nearly all a candidate’s unitemized contributions. Democrats seem to have mastered this art to a great extent than their GOP counterparts. Since her first race in 2012, Elizabeth Warren has set the bar for unitemized contributions. Since January of 2017, Warren has raised $17.7 million, $9.2 million of which was in unitemized contributions. Beto O’Rourke in Texas is proving to be a magnet for such contributions; 45 percent of his 1st quarter take came in the form of unitemized contributions. Cruz isn’t too far behind; 40 percent of his contributions were unitemized. Minnesota Democrat Tina Smith, who was appointed to the vacancy created by Al Franken’s resignation, brought in $1.42 million in contributions, 42 percent of which were unitemized. In Nebraska, Democrat Jane Raybould posted 40 percent in unitemized contributions, but she trails GOP U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer badly in cash on hand.

Among Republicans, Kelli Ward in Arizona raised 51 percent of her total 1st quarter take in unitemized contributions. However, Ward doesn’t have much to show for it as she has a very high burn rate. Of total contributions, McSally posted 29 percent and businessman Mike Braun of Indiana took 25 percent, which is pretty respectable for a self-funder. West Virginia’s Don Blankenship, another GOP candidate fueling his campaign with personal money, did not list a single unitemized contribution.

There are outliers. In Arizona, Republican former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio raised $503,191 in contributions, 79 percent of which were unitemized. Arpaio is something of an icon among conservatives for his staunch anti-immigration views and has spent years developing a list of loyal small-dollar donors, but his overall fundraising can’t compete with McSally’s. In West Virginia, environmental activist Paula Swearengin, who is challenging Manchin for the Democratic nomination, raised 77 percent in unitemized contributions. Unfortunately, it was 77 percent of $38,823. Swearengin poses no threat to Manchin, who for the record, had 6 percent in unitemized contributions.

The chart below shows the percentage of unitemized contributions in Democratic races in the Toss Up and Lean columns and Republican contests in the Toss Up and Likely columns.

Unitemized Contributions:

Democratic strategists have to be happy with where their incumbents and challengers are financially at this point in the cycle. Republicans, on the other hand, should be very concerned about where some of their challengers are today as financial resources are going to be spread thin. Focus now shifts to the 2nd quarter that ends on June 30.

A chart with complete 1st quarter FEC numbers, including cycle-to-date receipts and expenditures, can be found here.


Web Editor Ally Flinn and intern Jeremy Marsh contributed to this report