Politics

Too Much Money Is Too Good a Problem for Democratic Hopefuls

At least 60 candidates raised more than $1 million in third quarter

Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath is among a slew of Democratic House candidates reporting eye-popping fundraising figures for the third quarter. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Record-breaking campaign hauls in House races across the country have left some nominees with an enviable conundrum: How can they possibly spend all the money?

At least 60 House Democratic candidates reportedly raised more than $1 million each in the third quarter of the campaign cycle that ended Sept. 30, eye-popping sums that defy even the most optimistic of projections. But with Nov. 6 less than a month away, some political observers have wondered publicly whether a candidate could have too much cash. 

That was the question from the Twitterverse when Roll Call reported last week that Democrat Amy McGrath had raised an astounding $3.65 million in the third quarter — one of the largest sums reported so far — in her bid against Republican Rep. Andy Barr in Kentucky’s 6th District. “How do you even spend that much money in KY-06?? Wow!” tweeted Alixandria Lapp, president of House Majority PAC, a super PAC tied to House Democratic leadership. 

One response came from Democratic campaign veteran Brandon Lorenz: “Yard signs?” A joke, but seriously, Democratic strategists say the fundraising hauls could pose a real challenge to any campaign, especially in areas where the money goes a lot further. The way a campaign responds to the largesse could be a clear indication of how well — or how poorly — it is run.

Flashback: Democratic Candidates Raise Millions in Second Quarter Fundraising

Wheat from the chaff

Good campaign managers will know how to manage their money so they have an “arc of spending” throughout the campaign, said Ian Russell, who spent six years with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and now does congressional consulting for Beacon Media. 

“We would tell clients, ‘It’s not worth spending the money at a certain point.’ They might as well light a fire with it in the middle of the room,” he said. “Hopefully, they have a team that can start spending earlier.”

Mike Fraioli, whose firm Fraioli & Associates provides campaign consulting to Democrats, said campaigns rarely make it all the way through their wish lists for spending. 

“If you have that much more money, all your broadcast is covered, now you buy TV Land, the Hallmark Channel,” he said. “You just keep going down your list.”

He brushed aside concerns that candidates run the risk of “voter fatigue,” turning off potential supporters by bombarding them with too many advertisements and face-to-face appeals. 

“There is a long list of candidates who would like to have that problem,” he said. 

And complaints about having too much cash are hard to find.

Having worked on many campaigns, some that were well-funded and some that were under-funded, I was never at a point when I was like, ‘Oh, I have too much money,’” said Brian Smoot, a partner and founder of marketing agency 4C and a former political director at the DCCC. “That has never happened.”

McGrath’s $3.65 million, for context, is 69 times the $52,000 median household income in the district in the heart of Kentucky’s bluegrass country.

And that’s only half of the $6.65 million the Marine veteran’s campaign has raised since it launched in August of last year. She finished the third quarter with $1.7 million in the bank.

As to how she was going to spend the extra cash, her campaign is remaining tight-lipped. 

“I’m not especially inclined to tell a reporter (i.e. the public) how I’m spending my extra money late so that our opponent knows what to anticipate. So, I’ll have to politely decline comment for now,” McGrath campaign manager Mark Nickolas said in an email.

Barr’s campaign did not return a request for comment.

More Democratic dough

McGrath is among the top fundraisers this cycle, but other Democrats aren’t far behind. Thirty have raised more than $2 million each and eight have raised more than $3 million, DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico said at a Bloomberg News breakfast last week.

Luján declined to say which campaigns he was referring to, and candidates don’t have to report their third-quarter fundraising totals to the Federal Election Commission until Oct. 15.

Besides McGrath, more than 20 other candidates have reported third-quarter hauls of $1 million or more. Almost all of those are Democrats running for the House, where they have a better chance of taking majority control.

They include Josh Harder, who raised $3.5 million in California’s 10th District; Andrew Janz, who reported bringing in $4.3 million in California’s 22nd; and Elissa Slotkin, who raised $2.6 million in Michigan’s 8th, according to figures from Daily Kos Elections, which has been keeping a tally of third-quarter fundraising results over $1 million.

Much of that money is coming from small, individual donations, candidates have said.

Again for context, New Jersey Democrat Mikie Sherrill splashed headlines over the summer for raising $1.9 million in the second quarter ending June 30, which was more than what many Senate candidates raised during the same period. 

Some of the candidates who have reported the largest numbers have benefited from national profiles. McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot, filmed a campaign ad that went viral. Janz, a local prosecutor, has benefited from the progressive fury directed at his opponent, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, a Trump loyalist who has attempted to block the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 campaign. 

Democrats attribute the windfall to voters who have been riled up since President Donald Trump’s unexpected victory two years ago, and say it shows they will have more than enough momentum to net the 23 seats needed to retake the House.

New calculus

Being able to post such big numbers so late in the campaign season has been a complete game changer for Democrats, said Russell of Beacon Media. 

Republicans, meanwhile, are reporting numbers on par with what they raised in 2016, according to The Washington Post. 

The GOP’s national campaign committees were crushing their Democratic counterparts in fundraising at the beginning of the year and could have easily underestimated their opponents until late in the summer when the third quarter numbers started to trickle out, Russell said. In those cases, candidates might have thought they could easily “extinguish a lot of Democratic hopes early on” by saturating the airwaves.

“The thing they didn’t realize was that the Democrats had the money to fight back,” he said. “I guarantee you that was not in the plan.”

Russell’s schedule is a sign of the times.

“It’s one of the reasons why I’m doing a bunch of shoots this week,” he said during a layover while crisscrossing the country to file campaign ads. “These numbers are unbelievable. I’ve been in politics a long time, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

As for any leftovers, Fraioli had this pro tip: Throw a big party for everyone who helped.

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