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Senate challengers flush with campaign cash

First-quarter fundraising reports indicate expensive contests in 2020

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, speaks with a reporter in the Senate subway on March 12, 2020.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, speaks with a reporter in the Senate subway on March 12, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected, 6 p.m. | If first-quarter fundraising dollars were votes, then Democratic challengers would have captured Senate seats in Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, Maine and Montana. 

Nearly all the party’s Senate contenders hauled in more campaign money than their opponents in pivotal battleground states that in November will determine control of the chamber. 

“Obviously, there is a lot of enthusiasm on the Democratic side, and incumbents have been slowed down in their fundraising because of the COVID-19 crisis, so the numbers are closer than they would otherwise be,” said Republican John Feehery, a partner in the firm EFB Advocacy. 

But money obviously doesn’t directly translate to votes, and there were notable exceptions to Democrats’ big numbers. 

In Iowa, for example, incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican, raised more than $2.7 million during the first three months of this year. The Democratic front-runner most likely to face her in November, Theresa Greenfield, reported raising about $2.3 million in the quarter. Greenfield and several other contenders have a primary in June.   

Incumbent Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, brought in just under $4.1 million, less than his GOP challenger, military veteran John James, who reported more than $4.8 million in the quarter. 

But many Democrats vying for Senate seats posted eye-popping numbers, especially given that the coronavirus pandemic put an end to in-person fundraising and other campaign events in the final weeks of the quarter. 

“As Democratic candidates focus on serving their states and communities at this time, unprecedented grassroots support is fueling their campaigns and our path to flipping the Senate continues to expand,” Stewart Boss, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in an email to CQ Roll Call.

Canceled events

It’s not clear how COVID-19 will disrupt future fundraising totals, though smaller online donations are more likely to continue apace as big-dollar and political action committee events go on hiatus.

“It was a challenging quarter for high-dollar, event fundraising given the number of impeachment- and pandemic-related cancellations, but candidates who diversified into small-dollar, online strategies saw unprecedented engagement from thousands of new contributors, and WinRed was a big part of that for Republicans,” said GOP strategist John Ashbrook, a partner at the firm Cavalry LLC. 

WinRed is a leading conservative competitor to Democrats’ ActBlue online fundraising platform, and it has helped the party build a significant small-donor base.

Sara Gideon, who serves as speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, brought in $7.1 million in her effort to oust Republican Sen. Susan Collins. Collins reported $2.4 million for the quarter.

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Democrat Mark Kelly, the former astronaut who is challenging GOP Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona, raised $11 million in the quarter, outraising McSally for the fifth quarter in a row. In a sign that the state’s Senate race promises to be among the most expensive in the country, McSally hauled in $6.4 million. 

In Colorado, incumbent GOP Sen. Cory Gardner raised about $2.5 million, while the state’s former Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, raised close to $4.1 million.

Money in the bank

Still, Gardner has an advantage when it comes to money in the bank; he had nearly $9.6 million on hand as of March 31, compared with Hickenlooper’s $4.9 million. 

Feehery noted that most GOP incumbents hold an advantage when it comes to how much cash they have on hand.

The average cash on hand for GOP incumbents in tough races is $8 million, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of campaign reports. The average for Democratic challengers, meanwhile, was $2.9 million.

“And the power of incumbency becomes more real during crises like this because incumbents can weigh in directly and get relief for their constituents,” Feehery said. “Challengers don’t have that ability at the federal level.”  

For example, as small businesses overwhelmed a pandemic-response program offering loans that could become grants if the money is used to keep employees on the payroll, the national GOP sent out a news release calling it “Senator Collins’ Paycheck Protection Program” and noting it already sent $2 billion heading to Maine firms.

In North Carolina, the Democratic challenger outraised the incumbent Republican. Democrat Cal Cunningham, an Army veteran, disclosed nearly $4.4 million, more than the $2.1 million haul for Sen. Thom Tillis. 

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who jumped into the race on March 9 after a failed run for the Democratic presidential nomination, reported almost $3.4 million raised, while incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines raised $1.3 million.

Of course, some senators have the benefit of their own money, as is the case for Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Georgia Republican, who loaned her campaign $5 million. She had $6.1 million in cash on hand on March 31, but she has come under fire for stock sales before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. Rep. Doug Collins, a fellow Republican who is challenging her in the special election that will be held in November, raised nearly $2.5 million and had $2.2 million on hand.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect correct cash on hand totals and averages for candidates who filed preprimary reports in the first quarter.

Bridget Bowman and George LeVines contributed to this report.

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