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Democrats boost national fundraising for state legislatures

But individual candidates still fall far short of Republicans in races for specific seats.

Beto O’Rourke’s Senate run helped Democrats flip 12 seats in the Texas state House in 2018. Democrat are targeting the chamber this year, but their candidates in competitive races have only raised two-thirds what Republicans have, an analysis found.
Beto O’Rourke’s Senate run helped Democrats flip 12 seats in the Texas state House in 2018. Democrat are targeting the chamber this year, but their candidates in competitive races have only raised two-thirds what Republicans have, an analysis found. (Gary Miller/Getty Images file photo)

After nearly a decade of virtually ceding state legislative races to Republicans, the Democratic Party organization dedicated to winning those seats and other allied groups nationally are ramping up fundraising in a bid to win control of state chambers ahead of census-driven redistricting.

But funding disadvantages in individual races show the headwinds that persist.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the arm of the national party focused on state legislative races, is aiming to spend $50 million this cycle as it attempts to break Republican control of chambers that will oversee redistricting next year. The number represents a drastic increase from the last redistricting cycle in 2010 when the group spent just $10 million, compared with $30 million spent by their GOP counterpart, the Republican State Leadership Committee.

DLCC spending remained low throughout the first part of the last decade but grew from more than $17 million in the 2016 cycle to $36 million in 2018.

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After years of being outspent by its GOP counterpart, the DLCC first surpassed the RSLC in fundraising in the first half of 2019. The RSLC rebounded with a stronger second half, while the DLCC holds an edge for the first two months of 2020. Both groups have raised nearly identical amounts, $21.3 million each, since the start of last year.

Other Democratic groups, including the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and the Mike Bloomberg-backed Everytown for Gun Safety, have also raised or pledged millions for Democrats in state legislative races.

Local lag

The increased attention has coincided with Democratic victories in the 2018 midterms and Virginia’s state elections last year, and the groups are targeting further gains in 2020.

“We’re using these new resources and Democratic focus on state legislatures to go on offense this year,” DLCC President Jessica Post said last week.

But flipping chambers as the Democrats did in Virginia is about flipping individual seats. And the boost in funding to outside groups hasn’t trickled down to individual Democratic candidates in key states.

An analysis of campaign fundraising by the Democratic-aligned group Forward Majority showed Democrats in competitive races for the Texas House have raised about two-thirds what Republicans have. In Arizona and North Carolina, swing-district Republicans have outraised Democratic challengers by just more than a third. In winnable Florida House races, Democrats have raised barely one-seventh what Republicans have.

“You get into the pickup races in these state chambers that are competitive, that are winnable, that are squarely in the path of power and … these are really bad numbers,” said Vicky Hausman, co-CEO of Forward Majority.

Outside groups can help individual campaigns, but some states don’t allow groups like the DLCC to contribute directly to campaigns. And there are questions about how much outside groups can do to close substantial gaps in individual campaign spending.

Dylan Watts, political director for the North Carolina Senate Republicans, said that because he expects outside money to favor Democrats, he wants his candidates to have a better than 2-to-1 cash advantage.

“We know we’re going to be outspent on [outside money],” he said. “Is it worrisome? No, because we’ve kind of seen it most years. But it is going to make it more difficult for us throughout the election to penetrate the airwaves, penetrate the message.”

Keeping control

Zachary Albert, a political scientist at Brandeis University who has studied campaign finance, said there’s no magic number for how much outside money can make up for a campaign’s funding disadvantage. Candidates can even see a backlash if supportive outside groups, which can’t coordinate with candidates, misfire.

“When you’re relying on your outside groups, you lose control of the message,” he said.

In 2018, some Democratic candidates in swing states lost by just hundreds of votes. In some of those, they were outraised by Republicans by an average of 9-to-1, with several reaching 20-to-1, Hausman said.

Challengers at any level hoping to flip a seat are almost certain to see a fundraising disadvantage. But numbers that lopsided make it more difficult.

Democrats flipped 12 seats in the Texas House last cycle, but could have seen more success with better funding, said Andrew Reagan, the executive director of the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee.

“This is not something where Democrats have to be on parity with Republicans,” he said. “They need to not be outspent by more than 2- or 3-to-1. A lot of these districts in 2018 would have flipped if enough investment had been made, and the money just was not there.”

One example might be in a North Texas district held by Angie Chen Button, the Republican chairwoman of the Urban Affairs Committee.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke carried the district by nearly 10 points in 2018, but Button’s Democratic challenger, Brandy Chambers, came 1,100 votes shy of winning. In the last campaign finance report before the election, Button disclosed spending $291,000 in the closing weeks. Chambers spent $36,000.

The race is set for a rematch this year. Chambers said she doesn’t expect to match Button’s fundraising and instead will focus on raising enough cash to get her message to voters.

“They’re always going to outraise us, and they’re always going to outspend us,” Chambers said. “But our message is what rings true to … the voters.”

Button received three times as much in campaign contributions as Chambers in the last half of 2019 and has 10 times her opponent’s cash on hand, according to campaign finance reports filed in January.

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