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They raised millions and lost. Now what?

Democrats who were top fundraisers look to stay involved in politics

Kentucky’s Amy McGrath was one of the top Democratic fundraisers of the 2018 cycle in her unsuccessful challenge to GOP Rep. Andy Barr. (Jason Davis/Getty Images file photo)
Kentucky’s Amy McGrath was one of the top Democratic fundraisers of the 2018 cycle in her unsuccessful challenge to GOP Rep. Andy Barr. (Jason Davis/Getty Images file photo)

Democrats who ran for the House in 2018 shattered fundraising records, some even surpassing Senate candidates. But not all of the cycle’s top fundraisers ended up winning their races. 

That’s left a number of candidates — with high profiles and massive donor lists — pondering their next moves. And some are still eyeing careers in politics. 

“I feel sort of a sense of responsibility to make sure that I can do what I can, using my grassroots network, to give back and make sure that voting is protected,” said Democratic prosecutor Andrew Janz, who lost his race against California Republican Devin Nunes and is starting a new PAC focused on voting rights.

Also watch: First 2020 Senate race ratings are here

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New roles, for now

Janz was among the top fundraisers of the 2018 cycle, raising $9.2 million through Nov. 26. He ran a surprisingly competitive race against Nunes, a former House Intelligence chairman and staunch ally of President Donald Trump, losing by 5 points in the traditionally red Central Valley district.

Janz has gone back to work full-time at the Fresno County district attorney’s office, but said he’s considering a rematch against Nunes in 2020.

For now, Janz is starting the Voter Protection Project PAC, he said, to support candidates who want to protect voting rights, and oppose those who don’t, as well as engage in ballot initiatives. He expressed confidence the more than 200,000 small-dollar donations that fueled his campaign would support his new PAC. He is eyeing the potential new election in North Carolina’s 9th District, where allegations of election fraud have upended the result, as a race his committee could engage in. 

The California Democrat wasn’t the only losing candidate who raked in millions. Ironworker Randy Bryce raised more than $8.6 million through Nov. 26 in his unsuccessful campaign in Wisconsin’s 1st District.

Bryce initially challenged former Speaker Paul D. Ryan and gained national attention for a campaign launch video that went viral. Ryan later announced his retirement, and Bryce went on to lose to Republican Bryan Steil by 12 points. 

Since the election, he’s teamed up with the Working Families Party, who first recruited him to run against Ryan. He will be a senior adviser on WFP’s infrastructure initiative and will help to recruit working-class candidates.

“It’s a possibility,” Bryce said in a recent phone interview about running for Congress again, later adding that he might consider it more after the next round of redistricting. “I’m just trying to be as useful as I can right now.”

The Wisconsin Democrat said he was surprised at how much effort was spent raising money for a congressional campaign, and expected to advise candidates about tapping into small-dollar donations. More than two-thirds of Bryce’s contributions were donations of $200 or less.

Small-dollar donors helped fuel the Democrats’ 2018 fundraising surge. Roughly 16 percent of donations to their House candidates came from individuals contributing less than $200 — twice the percentage of Republican small-dollar donations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Democratic online fundraising platform ActBlue announced in late October that it had helped direct $1.5 billion in small-dollar donations toward Democratic campaigns and groups. 

Two other top Democratic fundraisers, Amy McGrath and Gina Ortiz Jones, are also taking on new roles as “senior fellows” for New Politics Leadership Academy, a nonprofit that runs leadership development programs for veterans and national service alumni interested in politics. 

McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot, raised more than $8.6 million in her unsuccessful bid to unseat GOP Rep. Andy Barr in Kentucky’s 6th District.

Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer, raised more than $6.2 million in her failed run against GOP Rep. Will Hurd in Texas’ 23rd District. Neither McGrath nor Ortiz Jones’ spokespersons responded to requests for comment.

The New Politics Leadership Academy noted on its website that McGrath would research “how to further close the rural-urban political gap in Kentucky,” and Ortiz Jones would research “which domestic policies can potentially pose future national and economic security risks” in Texas.

Future campaigns? 

That both McGrath and Ortiz Jones are staying in their states could be an indication they’re leaving the door open to reprising their campaigns. New ventures don’t prevent candidates from keeping their congressional campaign committees up and running.

All four Democrats had depleted most of their funds as of Nov. 26. Bryce had just $41,000 in cash on hand; Janz had $123,000; Ortiz Jones had $176,000; and McGrath had $479,000 in the bank. 

But replenishing their accounts for future runs may not be too difficult, given their extensive donor lists. They can keep their campaign committees operational for as long as they want, according to former FEC Commissioner Michael Toner.

“Partly they can stay relevant by making contributions to campaigns and committees,” said Toner, now a partner at Wiley Rein. He said these candidates can also leverage their donor lists by renting or selling them, as long as the prices are in line with the market value.

Whatever funds they have left can also become “seed money” for another run for the House or Senate, Toner said. If these candidates decide to run for state office, the laws about whether money can be transferred for that campaign vary by state.

McGrath declined to run for governor of Kentucky in 2019, but has been mentioned in news reports as a potential challenger to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2020. 

Besides Janz and Bryce, Ortiz Jones, who lost to Hurd by less than 1 point, is also contemplating another House bid, telling supporters in an email after the election she was “very likely” to run again.

Another top Texas fundraiser, Democrat MJ Hegar, could also seek a rematch against GOP Rep. John Carter in the 31st District. Hegar, a retired Air Force helicopter pilot, raised more than $5.1 million in her unsuccessful race and had $76,000 left in her campaign account.

Her spokesman did not respond to a request for comment, but she told The Texas Tribune that challenging Carter again was “one of the options” she was considering after the election. 

Correction Jan. 16, 10:38 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Democrat Andrew Janz’s PAC.

Correction Jan. 28, 4:50 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misidentified the nonprofit where Kentucky’s Amy McGrath and Texas’ Gina Ortiz Jones serve as senior fellows. It is the New Politics Leadership Academy. 

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