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No letup in congressional fundraising after ‘green wave’ election

Retirement-watch Republicans and no-corporate-PAC Democrats both stepped up

California Rep. Josh Harder, a freshman Democrat, raised the most money of all the Democrats the NRCC is targeting in 2020. (D.A. Banks/CQ Roll Call file photo)
California Rep. Josh Harder, a freshman Democrat, raised the most money of all the Democrats the NRCC is targeting in 2020. (D.A. Banks/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The race for the White House is already dominating headlines, but new campaign finance disclosures show donors in both parties are also opening their wallets to renew the fight to control the House in 2020.

Presidential campaign years tend to boost fundraising for down-ballot candidates, and early fundraising reports show 2020 is no exception.

Reports covering the first three months of the year show that Democrats who rode a “green wave” of cash into Congress last year, including those who said they would reject contributions from corporate PACs, continued to raise large sums.

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And in most cases, rather than call it quits, Republicans placed on a “retirement watch list” by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised more than they did during a similar period two years ago, when they were in the majority.

Special House elections continue to generate outsize money for Democrats. North Carolina’s Dan McCready, the party’s nominee in the Toss-up 9th District race, raised $1.6 million — more than his state’s junior senator, Republican Thom Tillis, raised for his re-election next year.

Republicans step it up 

Fundraising reports can often be an early indication of who’s taking their re-elections seriously and who might be considering hanging up their hats. Last cycle, for example, House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen raised alarm bells when he posted lackluster numbers in the final two quarters of 2017. The New Jersey Republican announced his retirement in early 2018.

Although Democrats have a large crop of vulnerable freshmen to defend next year, the party has been optimistic about retirements by GOP lawmakers — some of whom are in the minority for the first time — creating new pickup opportunities. The DCCC was quick to point out that Georgia Rep. Rob Woodall was on its “retirement watch list” when he announced plans to retire earlier this year.

It’s still early, however, as members often make decisions to retire over the winter holidays when they’re with their families.

So far this year, the data suggest that Democrats’ 2018 success might have woken some Republicans up to the necessity of raising money, or at least dissuaded them from leaving Congress. (Florida Rep. Ross Spano is a freshman who didn’t file with the Federal Election Commission for the first quarter of 2017, so there’s no applicable comparison for him.)


Three Republicans on the DCCC’s watch list stand out though. New York Rep. Chris Collins, who faces allegations of insider trading, raised just $5,000 during the first three months of the year. None of that money came from individuals in his 27th District, which he carried by less than half a point last fall. He told The (Batavia) Daily News over the weekend that he has not yet decided on running for re-election. Collins raised $281,000 in the first three months of 2017.

Another incumbent under indictment, California Rep. Duncan Hunter, also raised less this year than during the last cycle. He’s raised about $93,000 so far this year, compared with $163,000 two years ago. Nearly half of this year’s total was from from unitemized contributions from individuals, or donations of $200 or less.

Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner is the third Republican on the DCCC’s list whose first quarter fundraising was less than it was two years ago. But her much bigger haul in 2017, when she was fundraising vice chair for the National Republican Congressional Committee, also came while she was gearing up for a 2018 Senate bid that never came to be.

The 15 other Republicans on the watch list improved their fundraising this year. Five raised six figures during the first three months of this year after only raising five figures two years earlier. That includes two DCCC targets: New York Rep. Peter T. King and Texas Rep. Kenny Marchant.

“I don’t feel like there’s going to be a wave of retirements at all,” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole said off the House floor last week. As a former NRCC chairman, it used to be part of his job to convince members who were eyeing the door to stick around.

“We had a harder time last time than I think we’re going to have this time in terms of persuading members to run again,” Cole said, adding that Republicans are “reasonably optimistic” about reclaiming the majority in 2020.

One Democrat in a competitive seat, Iowa Rep. Dave Loebsack, has already announced his retirement, giving Republicans a chance to compete in his 2nd District. Loebsack’s announcement came after he raised $124,000 in the first quarter, compared with $259,000 two years ago.

Republicans are looking forward to the day Democratic Rep. Collin C. Peterson retires, since his Minnesota district will likely flip without him there to hold it. But the chairman of the Agriculture Committee raised $282,000 — or more than $100,000 above his total two years ago — suggesting he’s gearing up to run again.

Republicans were also crowing about lackluster fundraising by New Jersey Democratic Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a freshman who’s an NRCC target. He raised just $121,000 — much less than other Garden State Democrats.

No corporate money? No problem

Van Drew is one of just two Democrats that the NRCC is targeting who raised less than $200,000 in the first quarter. Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, who does not accept any PAC money, raised $195,000.

The remaining 52 House Democrats who are NRCC targets raised more than $200,000. The fundraising hauls are likely welcome news to the party, since it is typically more difficult to fundraise in the first quarter of the cycle due to donor fatigue after the last election.

Democrats placed an early emphasis on online fundraising and were confident of continuing their robust programs heading into 2020. The DCCC also placed digital directors in each of its regional teams to assist incumbents with grassroots solicitations.

Some of the party’s top fundraisers are not in competitive general election races but have national profiles, such as Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, who raised $832,000, and New York’s. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who brought in nearly $728,000.

Fourteen House Democrats listed as NRCC targets raised more than $500,000 in the first quarter, and all but one were freshmen. California Rep. Josh Harder, who unseated Republican Jeff Denham in the 10th District last fall, was the top fundraiser among targeted Democrats, raking in nearly $874,000. Harder ended the quarter with $790,000 in cash on hand.

Harder is also one of 29 NRCC targets who has rejected corporate PAC money. The “no corporate PAC” pledge caught fire among Democratic challengers in 2018 as they sought to cast themselves as independent from special interests.

The 29 Democrats who took the pledge raised an average of $451,000 in the first quarter. The other 25 Democrats who are NRCC targets but do accept corporate PAC money raised an average of nearly $370,000.

The early fundraising numbers could quiet questions about how Democrats rejecting corporate money could make up for lost funds. Proponents of the pledge have argued that candidates would rake in small-dollar donations, but in the first quarter of 2019, donations from individuals giving more than the $200 still account for most of these candidates’ hauls.

Donors giving $200 or less, categorized by the FEC as “unitemized contributions,” gave 11 percent of the total money to the no-corporate-PAC Democrats in the first quarter.

The vast majority of Democrats rejecting corporate money still accepted contributions from other types of PACs, such as those connected to colleagues in Congress, trade associations and labor groups.

PAC donations made up an average of 22 percent of the total contributions for targeted Democrats who are not accepting corporate PAC money. PAC donations made up an average of 41 percent of the share of contributions to Democrats who do accept corporate money.

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