A tidal wave of cash, much of it from small-dollar grassroots donors, helped Democrats win back the House in 2018, but replicating that fundraising success this cycle won’t be easy.
For one, they’ll be competing with a growing field of Democratic presidential contenders, several of whom have already pledged to lean heavily on grassroots donors as they bid to take on President Donald Trump.
The presidential race likely also means less earned media attention for House Democrats. And after taking back the majority from Republicans last cycle, running on defending those gains may not resonate as strongly with the party base.
Democrats say they aren’t panicking yet, but they acknowledge their candidates will have to work hard for the same small-dollar donations.
“Donors don’t just show up. They’re just not some magical ATM,” said Erin Hill, the executive director of ActBlue, a Democratic online fundraising platform. “They’re cultivated like a community, like you would cultivate any other constituency in a campaign.”
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Many Democrats expected to be top Republican targets in 2020 ended last year with depleted campaign coffers. Of the 23 freshmen in districts Trump won in 2016, 16 had less than $100,000 on hand at Dec. 31, according to Federal Election Commission reports. On average, these 23 freshmen had roughly $88,000 in the bank.
With the presidential race commanding much of the attention, it’s unclear how much of the “drive-by” money directed at Democrats in 2018 will return, said one Democratic digital consultant. “Drive-by” money refers to funds raised from progressive groups directing their own donors toward specific candidates.
Some of that money originated with presidential hopefuls themselves — and their PACs. Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and others helped raise money for House candidates last cycle, but they’ll now be leveraging their email lists for their own campaigns.
Media attention in 2018 also led to spikes in donations for House challengers, particularly in longer-shot races.
“There will be less of those viral, catch-fire candidates who maybe don’t have as much of a chance to win because that attention will be centered on a presidential [race],” said Taryn Rosenkranz, the founder and CEO of the Democratic digital fundraising firm New Blue Interactive.
Donor fatigue after a successful midterm election could hurt many vulnerable freshmen who are looking to post strong numbers in the first fundraising quarter.
Another challenge facing House Democrats is their shifting posture from offense to defense. Donors may not be as excited about defending the new majority as they were about ousting House Republicans last cycle, particularly in the first year of the new Congress.
Rosenkranz said 2017 was an outlier for fundraising, noting that small-dollar Democratic donors started giving as a reaction to Trump’s presidency. House special elections that year drew millions in spending — remember Georgia’s 6th District? — and donors also sent money to “district funds” for eventual Democratic nominees in key races through grassroots group Swing Left.
Toward a ‘new normal’
Despite these obstacles, Democrats aren’t resigned to seeing massive drops in fundraising numbers for House candidates this cycle.
For starters, they say, presidential races tend to boost fundraising further down the ballot. An analysis by the Campaign Finance Institute found that money raised by House candidates increased in 2016, 2012 and 2008 compared to the previous midterm elections.
Some Democrats see the increase in small-dollar donations in the 2018 cycle as marking a new era in congressional fundraising.
“I think the ‘new normal’ bar has been raised,” Rosenkranz said, adding that candidates with a grassroots fundraising infrastructure who’ve been communicating with donors should still post strong numbers.
“It’s not just that people are giving more, it’s that more people and new people are giving,” said Adam Bozzi, a spokesman for End Citizens United. The campaign finance group will continue to back candidates who reject corporate PAC money and direct its donors to support those contenders.
Grassroots donors gave more than $42 million to Democratic candidates through ActBlue last cycle. And 64 percent of donors were first-time users of ActBlue.
Democrats are preparing to once again prioritize grassroots, online fundraising.
ActBlue is planning to double its staff and boost technical resources.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is in the process of hiring and placing digital directors on each of its regional teams, continuing a practice that began in the 2018 cycle. The directors work with candidates to build a grassroots fundraising strategy from the start of the campaigns.
The committee recently touted that it raised more than $3 million online from small-dollar donors, in the last month of 2018, and a total of $4.8 million. The National Republican Congressional Committee raised a total of $1.9 million over that same period, according to Federal Election Commission documents.
“After taking back the House, the DCCC and our grassroots supporters haven’t taken our foot off the gas as we turn our focus to strengthening and expanding our majority in 2020,” Chairwoman Cheri Bustos of Illinois said in a statement.
ActBlue’s Hill said she expected Democratic donors to continue to give to presidential and congressional candidates. She noted the platform makes that process simple by saving donors’ information in “ActBlue Express” accounts, which are used by nearly 6 million people.
And there’s another factor that explains why House Democrats feel encouraged about carrying their fundraising momentum into 2020: Trump is still in the White House.
“President Trump is our best fundraiser from the top to the bottom of the ballot,” Democratic fundraiser Mike Fraioli said.