Democratic challengers outraised Republican House incumbents in 92 House districts in the last three months — a staggering mismatch that boosts the odds of a GOP washout in November.
There is no historical precedent for financing this broad and deep for congressional challengers. About half of the 92 GOP incumbents are protecting battleground districts, and some of them posted personal-record fundraising totals in the third quarter of 2018 — but they still found themselves swamped by a combination of incandescent online fundraising for Democrats and bigger donors spreading money to challengers around the country, as 61 Democrats raised over $1 million. Fifty-one House Republicans were outraised at least 2-to-1, according to POLITICO’s analysis of the latest Federal Election Commission filings, while 71 were outspent by their challenger. Only five Democratic House incumbents were outraised.
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Meanwhile, 33 GOP representatives have less cash on hand than their Democratic challengers, while no Democratic members lag their Republican opponents in cash. That cash on hand gap has been a particularly dire historical indicator: In the last four elections, two-thirds of the House incumbents who ended September with less cash to spend than their opponents lost their seats weeks later.
Typically, only a handful of incumbents find themselves in that position each year. But a high number of cash-swamped Democratic incumbents heralded the Republican wave election in 2010. That year, 18 House Democrats finished the third quarter with less cash on hand than opponents, and 10 went on to lose their seats weeks later.
The financial picture is even worse for the GOP in open districts, where Democrats lead Republicans in both fundraising and cash on hand in two-dozen contested seats, after an unusually high number of retirements before this election.
“The Democratic fundraising surge is emblematic of the intensity we have seen mounting for some time now,” said Ken Spain, a former National Republican Congressional Committee staffer. “The only thing the NRCC and the outside groups can do at this point is to do what they are currently doing – consolidate resources, cut bait in unwinnable districts and build a firewall that can hopefully hold through Election Day.”
Another Republican consultant, granted anonymity to speak candidly, put it more bluntly: “We’re getting our asses kicked. Nothing else to say.”
The record-breaking financial hauls — only 11 challengers in both parties raised over $1 million in the third quarter of 2016 — do not guarantee success to any candidate. Joe Radinovich, the Democratic nominee seeking to hold a northern Minnesota district for his party, and David Shapiro, who is challenging Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), both raised over $1 million last quarter. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is cutting TV ad reservations in both of those districts, according to a source familiar with the committee’s decision, a sign that the party does not like its odds in GOP-leaning district.
But in more competitive districts, the Democratic cash advantage allowed some challengers to kick off major advertising campaigns in August, earlier than ever before, to head off a deluge of attack ads from GOP outside groups.
Republican outside groups “flooding the zone in the last two weeks” was “what kept me up at night,” said former Rep. Steve Israel, who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2012 and 2014. “But Democrats have alleviated that headache by frontloading sustained, massive amounts of money, and at the end of the day, it will be enough to stem the tidal wave of Republican super PAC money that always comes in.”
That Republican outside money is still raining down on Democratic candidates. Officials from the House GOP’s flagship super PAC, Congressional Leadership Fund, said they expect to raise and spend $150 million on House races in 2018. A memo circulated last week by the group said that Republicans faced “a green wave, not a blue wave.”
CLF recently cut off a pair of Republican incumbents, Michigan Rep. Mike Bishop and Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman. Both members trail their Democratic challengers — Elissa Slotkin and Jason Crow, respectively — in fundraising as well as cash on hand. But the committee is also reengaging in races the GOP had once written off. CLF is starting a $1 million TV buy to defend GOP Rep. Rod Blum in Iowa, one of the party’s most endangered incumbents. And the super PAC is investing a mid-six-figure buy in Florida’s 27th District, a South Florida seat where Republican Maria Elvira Salazar is polling close to or ahead of Democrat Donna Shalala, who was once seen as a heavily favorite.
But “for the final push, when it really counts, Democrats have more resources to deploy in the closing weeks than Republicans,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, who chaired the NRCC for two election cycles in the 1990s and 2000s. “Republicans are going to have to cut off some of their members, and it makes those decisions harder on the Republican side than on the Democratic side.”
It’s not just GOP candidates falling behind on the fundraising front. The NRCC has also lagged behind the DCCC in fundraising, bringing in $150.5 million by the end of August to the DCCC’s $206.4 million, according to the most recent FEC filings.
“For over a year we’ve warned incumbents about what to expect from Democratic candidates in terms of fundraising,” Jesse Hunt, an NRCC spokesman, said in a statement. “After record breaking fundraising — an amount to date that’s $25 million more than the previous record — the NRCC has worked hard to level the playing field in battleground districts.”
A former NRCC official, granted anonymity to speak candidly about party fundraising, said that “these fundraising numbers should scare everyone,” adding that “the committee’s job is to focus on members and help them raise money, but the members are getting killed on fundraising, and so is the committee.”
The composition of the $1 million fundraising club cuts across all districts, from the palm tree-lined streets of Orange County to the cornfields of downstate Illinois to the northern Virginia suburbs — just across the river from Capitol Hill. In fact, more than half of the 61 million-dollar Democrats actually brought in at least $2 million to their campaigns.
Three California Democrats – Josh Harder, Katie Hill and Harley Rouda – all cracked the $3 million mark. Democrat Danny O’Connor, who narrowly lost a special election against Rep. Troy Balderson (R-Ohio) in August, raised the most last quarter, an eye-popping $5.9 million — much of which he spent in the Aug. 7 special. But O’Connor has $1 million to spend in the final weeks of the general election, while Balderson has just over $380,000 in the bank.
This election cycle has already featured the most expensive single House race in history: Democrat Jon Ossoff’s face-off against Republican Karen Handel in the 2017 Georgia special election. At the time, Republicans dismissed Ossoff’s online fundraising success as a singular fluke, particularly after Handel defeated him.
But Democrat Dean Phillips, who’s running against Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) in the western suburbs of Minneapolis and raised $1.7 million last quarter, said that “if people believe that their investment matters and their participation matters, then this can last,” Phillips said.
“I think we’re showing that even under this broken system, change is possible,” said Phillips, who committed to not accepting any PAC money.