There’s No Rest for the Fundraising Weary

Vulnerable freshmen face high expectations for first quarter fundraising

Nevada Rep. Jacky Rosen, seen here with DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján, will be a top target for Republicans in 2018 and says she’ll be kicking off fundraising events in February. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Nevada Rep. Jacky Rosen, seen here with DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján, will be a top target for Republicans in 2018 and says she’ll be kicking off fundraising events in February. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted February 2, 2017 at 5:00am

Even before they’ve settled into their new lives on Capitol Hill, freshman House members from swing districts need to prepare for the fight to stay there. 

No member likes to talk about fundraising. Navigating the halls during the first month of the 115th Congress, new members stressed the importance of listening to the people who sent them to Washington. 

“I really think it’s more about the work that I do,” said Nevada Democrat Jacky Rosen, who’ll be one of the GOP’s top targets in 2018.

Show me the money

That’s important. But so is money.

“It started on Nov. 9,” said Democratic fundraising consultant Mike Fraioli. “They may not have scheduled an event, but if they won, they slept 24 hours and put together a program.”

Fundraising will step into higher gear now that new members have their committee assignments and can begin meeting and greeting relevant industry leaders.

The close of the first quarter fundraising period is March 31, and when those reports to the Federal Election Commission go public on April 15, they’ll be widely scrutinized to see who’s serious about re-election. 

“Every quarter basically determines whether they’re going to get a primary opponent,” said a Republican fundraising consultant who preferred to stay anonymous because she didn’t want her comments associated with her clients.

A strong first quarter helps members achieve what’s known in consultant-speak as “winning in the off-year.” A hefty haul helps deter challenges and gives incumbents a head start.

Democrats praise their 2016 Frontline Members — representatives like Illinois’ Cheri Bustos and New Hampshire’s Ann McLane Kuster — for raising early cash that may have deterred Republicans from targeting them in a presidential year, when turnout is usually more favorable for Democrats anyway.

Two Republican freshmen set new records in the first quarter of 2015. Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo both raised more than $700,000. They still faced highly-targeted races in competitive districts. But even when his Democratic opponent outraised him in subsequent quarters, the early fundraising strength from Poliquin, a member of the Financial Services Committee, allowed him to sustain a cash-on-hand advantage.

On the other end of the spectrum, California Republican Steve Knight raised a measly $29,000 during the first quarter of 2015, which wouldn’t have been enough to run a competitive race in the Los Angeles media market. Republican operatives took notice, and he did better in the second quarter, bringing in about $400,000.

Sending a signal?

Bad first quarters happen. But if by the second quarter, a member’s fundraising hasn’t improved, it raises questions about how serious they are or if they’re even planning to run again. 

The first quarter is a particular challenge for all the other reasons that coming to Washington is a challenge. Freshmen have to find a place to live, set up their computers, hire staff and get used to spending Monday through Thursday away from home. 

“What people don’t realize is that they have the same pressures on them to perform politically, they just have a lot less time to do it,” the GOP consultant said. “It’s not like they get here and get a fancy office and go and vote a couple of times a day. They actually have a job to do.”

Of course, the relationships that come with the job also help new members raise money. The Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means committees are the plum spots when it comes to raising money from industry, and few freshmen snag positions on those panels. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t still reach out to industry leaders.

“You can only be on a couple of committees, so if you don’t cultivate people on other committees, that’s a mistake,” Fraioli said. “You won’t perhaps raise as much as the chairman of Energy and Commerce would raise from energy, but you might get some.”

That takes time, though. The mistake Fraiolo sees freshmen make is not starting earlier enough. Representatives of industry PACs need to get to know members, and they need to justify to their boards spending money on them.

“It’s a people business,” Fraiolo said. 

Cultivating relationships applies to individual donors, too. “I’ve made over a thousand calls,” Illinois Democrat Brad Schneider said in mid-January. “They’re waiting for me to say, ‘Can you help?’ I say, ‘I’m not asking for money, I’m just saying thank you.’”

Consultants from both sides of the aisle said the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee haven’t dictated a set number of hours this year for call time. 

It’s often easier for members to make a call if it’s to invite a donor to an event. There are the ubiquitous fundraisers at Capitol Hill establishments, like the February lunch Nevada Democratic freshman Ruben Kihuen is holding at Sonoma or the breakfast Rosen is holding at the Hotel George, where a $5,000 contribution equals “host” status.

Schneider’s been through this before, winning Illinois’s competitive 10th District in 2012, then losing it in 2014 before winning again last November.

“The most important thing I have to do is make sure I represent the people who elected me,” he said. “But I also have to make sure I have the resources to continue to represent them in the future.”