House Republicans close money gap with majority at stake
House Republicans spent the last four years drowning under an avalanche of Democratic campaign cash. Now they’re staging a fundraising comeback — just in time for a run at the majority.
Over the past three months, GOP incumbents have largely matched Democrats in the money race. The winning formula: a full embrace of digital fundraising, the maturation of their fledgling WinRed platform and donor optimism after a successful showing down-ballot in 2020. All that combined has allowed them to begin erasing the massive financial advantage that Democrats have enjoyed since the rise of former President Donald Trump.
At least 49 Democrats and 43 Republicans each raised more than $500,000 in the second quarter of 2021 — a fairly even split — according to a POLITICO analysis of campaign finance reports filed this week. That’s a stark contrast with the second quarter of 2019, when roughly 50 Democratic candidates cleared that threshold, but only some 30 Republicans reached that mark.
“Our leaders are setting records. And our members — especially these freshmen — you’ve got these $500,000 to $1 million reports that are coming out just a couple years after a big report for Republicans was typically around $250,000,” said Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The GOP had some prolific fundraisers last quarter: Reps. Young Kim (R-Calif.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) both cleared $1 million. Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) raised over $850,000. All but Fitzpatrick are members of the 2020 freshman class.
To be sure, House Democrats are still posting massive quarterly totals. And the redistricting process makes it more difficult to know which incumbents will need large war chests. But Republicans are seeing a new groundswell of financial support in the off-year and, as Democrats realized in 2018, that’s often one of the earliest signs of base enthusiasm and a successful drive for the majority.
“In 2018 we put a significant emphasis on candidate development, candidate money and giving candidates the ability to go out and tell their stories,” said Dan Sena, the former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It was a central reason we were able to win back the House.”
“What should be of note to Democratic strategists and the Democratic campaigns going forward is that it now seems the Republicans are doing the same thing,” Sena added.
Another sign of GOP momentum: The National Republican Congressional Committee has lapped the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in fundraising, outraising the DCCC by $8 million in the first six months of 2021. At this point the 2020 cycle, House Democrats had outraised Republicans by over $17 million.
The NRCC credits that success, in part, to their painstaking and long-running efforts to build a digital operation.
In interviews, Emmer often recalls a moment in early 2019, when a top digital strategist at the committee wrote him a memo, urging a heavy investment in small-dollar fundraising. That strategist, Lyman Munschauer, predicted the NRCC would suffer a net loss on that investment of 3 to 5 percent after one year before reaping gains.
But the benefits came even more quickly: The NRCC began making money within a year, and it has continued to flow in.
In the second quarter of 2019, the NRCC raised $3.3 million online. Over the same period this year, it raised more than $14.1 million.
“This time, we’re being even more aggressive,” Emmer said. “Yes, that investment is paying off.”
Meanwhile, WinRed, the GOP online fundraising platform created as a counter to the Democrats’ ActBlue, has taken off at a similar clip, bringing in $2.3 billion since its created in 2019.
“Your average Democrat who runs is now all about digital money,” said WinRed president Gerrit Lansing, noting ActBlue was founded in 2004. “We’re just having to complete that 15-year cultural shift and just condense it down into a couple cycles to try to catch up.”
For the GOP, this windfall comes at a crucial moment. When corporate PACs announced they would scale back their donations after the Jan. 6 insurrection, there was some concern that would disproportionately impact Republicans, who sometimes rely more heavily on those gifts.
“We’re all online-based now,” Lansing said of his party. The shift happened years ago, but the “fruits of that labor are really coming to fruition now. And it just so happened to coincide with this huge corporate PAC sort-of cage-rattling situation. So it’s ironic.”
Perhaps more importantly, WinRed has helped Republicans redirect the wealth toward new candidates, particularly downballot. Of the $131 million raised on the platform in the second quarter, almost 40 percent of that came from first-time donors to a single campaign.
Some of the party’s most adept fundraisers are able to nudge their supporters toward other candidates. For example, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who has raised over $1 million every quarter since she shot to prominence during the first Trump impeachment trial, has shared 150,000 donors since the start of the 2020 cycle.
All of this has spurred a digital-first mentality among Republicans that has long been prevalent in the Democratic political ecosystem, which some in the GOP attribute to their current freshman class, which is younger, more tech-savvy and less accustomed to in-person fundraising than longer-term incumbents.
“We started building our digital program early,” said Hinson, who was a TV news anchor in Cedar Rapids before flipping a seat in 2020. “I do enjoy doing digital fundraising. I’m a direct-to-camera person.”
Filming online ads has helped her connect with constituents and donors, Hinson said. “We use Facebook ads a lot for our digital fundraising, and we have great feedback from the comment sections of those ads.”
And like the NRCC, GOP campaigns appear to be becoming more comfortable with the idea of spending money to make it. Hinson, along with some of the party’s biggest fundraisers like Kim, Steel and Mace, spent well over $300,000 last quarter — a higher sum than is typical a year-and-a-half before the election.
All made significant investments in fundraising consulting, digital marketing and web ads, according to their FEC reports.
Still, Democratic incumbents retain a significant cash-on-hand advantage, especially those like Reps. Josh Harder (D-Calif.), Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) and Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.), who did not face particularly competitive reelections in 2020 and have well over $4 million in the bank. Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) has a staggering $12.9 million stashed.
And some operatives were privately relieved at the small hauls of some highly touted Republican challengers. GOP state Sen. Jen Kiggans of Virginia only raised $286,000 for her run against Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.). And Marine veteran Tyler Kistner raised just $279,000 for his rematch with Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) Though those challengers didn’t launch until mid-April, both incumbents raised well over twice as much.
Yet some of the money has also begun to trickle down to GOP challengers. Republican Derrick Van Orden outraised incumbent Rep. Ron Kind in Wisconsin, $754,000 to $409,000.
In the coming quarters, however, Republicans are facing an additional roadblock: enticing prospective challengers who are dragging their feet, waiting for the delayed redistricting process to start.
“I hope more candidates jump in soon and not wait for new district lines,” said Dan Conston, the president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a top GOP super PAC. “Because that compressed calendar is going to present a significant challenge for them for online fundraising and for big-dollar fundraising.”
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