Much has been written about the less-than-stellar 4th quarter fundraising reports that many Republican Senate incumbents and challengers posted. The more relevant question is why.
There are a number of theories, but two seem to resonate the strongest. The first is obvious: the number of competitive primaries in a number of key races in which there is no clear front-runner and the unwillingness of donors to get involved. Indiana and West Virginia are good examples. In Indiana, U.S. Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita had receipts of $427,179 and $459,078, respectively. Neither is an impressive number for a sitting Member of Congress. Both have more respectable cash-on-hand totals at over $2.4 million each. There is a third candidate in the field, businessman and former state Rep. Mike Braun, who reported raising $2.5 million last quarter, but nearly all of it came in the form of personal loans to the campaign. It’s hard to find a GOP strategist who is not involved in one of the campaigns willing to venture a guess on who will win the nomination.
The story in West Virginia is similar. U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, who fared worse than either of his colleagues from Indiana, raised just $204,672 last quarter. He finished with nearly $1.4 million in the bank. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey raised $739,164 and had $1.1 million in the bank. Again, neither has established himself as the front-runner in the primary.
The second reason can perhaps be best described as donor reticence, although one strategist used the word frustration. Given that Republicans control the White House and Congress, many GOP donors went into 2017 with very high expectations (realistic or not) about what Congress and Trump could accomplish. By fall, they were frustrated and disappointed by the lack of progress on many issues. Efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed. Ditto for efforts to build a wall along the nation’s southern border and other means of addressing illegal immigration. No progress was made in 2017 on infrastructure. And, finally and perhaps most important, there was not a lot of confidence among donors that Congress would succeed in getting tax reform to the President’s desk. Congress did approve the legislation on December 20, just 11 days before the end of the 4th quarter and, as important, just days before Christmas. Trump signed the legislation on December 22. That didn’t leave much time for Republicans to capitalize on what was the first real success of this Congress.
There were some fundraising standouts among GOP challengers that merit a mention. In Arizona, GOP U.S. Rep. Martha McSally raised nearly $1.1 million in the 4th quarter, finishing with nearly $1.82 million in the bank. In Tennessee, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn raised $2 million and had a cash-on-hand balance of $4.64 million.
While Republicans weren’t enjoying a robust 4th quarter, their Democratic counterparts were enjoying fundraising success. This is especially true of challengers in Republicans’ most vulnerable seats. Both Democratic U.S. Reps. Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona and Jacky Rosen in Nevada raised over $1.5 million each. In Tennessee, former Gov. Phil Bredesen raised $518,069 during the 24 days he was in the race in the 4th quarter. Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas posted an impressive $2.44 million in receipts in his bid against GOP U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in a race that has not yet made it on Democrats’ target list. It is worth noting that O’Rourke doesn’t take PAC contributions.
It’s not hard to see why Democrats have been successful. Polling consistently shows that the Democratic base is engaged, invested in the mid-term election and intensely dislike President Trump. This all translates into enthusiastic donors. While I wouldn’t describe the battle for control of the Senate as a toss up, the chance that Democrats can take control has also energized Democratic donors. So what about the two theories about Republicans’ lackluster fundraising? The first theory will only be proven once there are nominees in key races. The second will be proven by March 31, the end of the 1st quarter. If fundraising improves for GOP Senate incumbents and challengers, then it’s true that donors were waiting to see what could be accomplished and are happy with the win on tax reform. If fundraising remains flat, then there is a more systemic problem that needs a quick diagnosis and fix.
The rise of super PACs means that just a handful of strategists. on the Republican side hit the panic button. While a dollar spent by a super PAC doesn’t buy as much as a dollar spent by a candidate, super PACs can go a long way toward leveling the financial playing field to the point where no candidate will lose a competitive race because of money.
As one veteran Republican fundraiser noted, given how competitive the cycle is and what’s at stake, “The money will be there ... it always is.”