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Campaign update: Fundraising surges despite pandemic

Online efforts and enthusiasm make up for canceled in-person events

The latest fundraising reports this week show that money is continuing to flow to congressional campaigns, even amid a global health crisis, nationwide unrest and record unemployment.

Some campaign operatives were bracing for a drop in fundraising in the second quarter, which spanned from April through June, as the coronavirus spread throughout the country, shuttering businesses and sparking an economic downturn. But House and Senate candidates have still raised eye-popping figures. 

Overall fundraising for Democrats in competitive House and Senate races, and Republicans in Senate races, actually increased from the first to the second fundraising quarters, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of second quarter fundraising reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. The analysis included races that Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates as competitive and those targeted by the party campaign committees. 

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Fundraisers and strategists in both parties said the pandemic has shifted the focus to fundraising on digital platforms and grassroots donors as in-person, big-dollar events were canceled.

Some of that increase may be explained by a traditional boost in fundraising as November approaches. But some Democrats said the persistent second quarter fundraising was also due to a surge in donor engagement as the country grappled with multiple crises, including the pandemic and protests against racism and police brutality following the killing of George Floyd.

“We really had no idea the impact [the pandemic] would have,” said Taryn Rosenkranz, founder and CEO of New Blue Interactive, a Democratic digital fundraising firm. “I think from a Democratic perspective, a lot of people felt the only thing they could do while they’re at their home was to give.”  

Donations continue 

While the pandemic’s impact was unpredictable, Rosenkranz and other campaign strategists were expecting a fundraising decline similar to past economic downturns.

“I was terrified. I was like, ‘Well, I’m glad I’ve got some money saved up,’ ” said Cooper Teboe, a fundraiser whose firm CDT Strategies is based in Silicon Valley. Instead, he said, he’s seen candidates post record hauls amid the pandemic.

Democrats in competitive House races, including incumbents, challengers, and candidates in open seat races, raised a combined $68.4 million in the second quarter after raising $55.6 million in the first quarter. 

Fundraising for Republicans in competitive and targeted House races matched the first quarter, when Republicans raised a total of $51.2 million.

Senate candidates in both parties also saw fundraising boosts in the second quarter. 

Democrats in competitive Senate races, including incumbents, challengers, and candidates in open seats, raised a combined $84.8 million in the second quarter, a sizable increase from $51.1 million in the first quarter. 

Republicans in competitive Senate races raised $60 million in the second quarter and $40.5 million in the first quarter.

Senate Democratic challengers posted some striking totals, which Rosenkranz said was a sign of where grassroots donors believe they can make a difference.

Senate Republicans are largely on defense this cycle, and Democratic challengers in some of the top competitive races had multi-million dollar hauls in the second quarter. Democratic challengers outraised Senate GOP incumbents in nine races Inside Elections rates as competitive. One GOP challenger, Army veteran John James, outraised Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters. 

Some Democratic Senate hopefuls saw sizable fundraising boosts, including Iowa real estate executive Theresa Greenfield, who more than doubled her fundraising from the first quarter. During the second quarter from April through June, which included Iowa’s Democratic primary, Greenfield raised more than $6 million, while incumbent GOP Sen. Joni Ernst had a nearly $3.6 million haul. 

Greenfield’s campaign capitalized on its growing digital program, turning headlines into donations. In May and June, Greenfield’s campaign raised $210,000 online in the two days after polls were released showing a competitive race. The campaign raised $2,000 off a single Instagram story, which disappears from the platform after 24 hours. And this month, Greenfield’s campaign raised $200,000 online in the two days after Ernst was interviewed on CNN.

Digital focus

Greenfield’s emphasis on online fundraising is part of a broader shift toward digital and grassroots fundraising during the pandemic, campaign strategists said. 

“This new normal that we’re in has changed the way we do business and people have had to adapt, and adapt quickly,” said Democratic fundraiser Michael Fraioli.

Events that draw large-dollar donors, or in-person coffees and happy hours, were canceled as the virus spread. Fundraisers are now largely virtual events, with many conducted using the video conferencing platform Zoom. 

But the lack of in-person events could be to some candidates’ benefit. 

“Call time and low-dollar programs tend to yield better results for candidates than major events, so disciplined candidates and campaigns can use an event-free environment to their advantage,” said one GOP consultant. 

The shift to an even greater focus on digital operations could further benefit Democrats, who have an advantage in online fundraising through the ActBlue platform, which allows donors to easily donate to multiple campaigns. 

“During lockdowns people are at home and they’re online, which means they’re reading more emails, they’re seeing more digital ads,” said one Democratic strategist involved in House races. 

Republicans recently launched their own online platform known as WinRed, but acknowledge Democrats have a head start. 

Politico reported that the National Republican Senatorial Committee sounded the alarm with Senate Republicans that lawmakers were not effectively leveraging digital programs. Asked if the pandemic, which places more of an emphasis on digital fundraising, exacerbates that problem, a GOP strategist involved in Senate races said, “For sure.” 

Democratic Senate candidates outpaced their Republican counterparts in small-dollar donations in the second fundraising quarter, raising $32.4 million in “unitemized” donations, which are contributions of less than $200, compared with $20.5 million by Republicans.  

WinRed president Gerrit Lansing said they have seen an uptick in campaigns and operatives requesting training to use the platform. 

“A lot of campaigns who did not take online money seriously are taking it seriously for the first time,” Lansing said. 

Asked if it is too late for 2020 campaigns to make that shift, Lansing said, “It’s never too late, but it’s obviously better to start earlier.”

Kate Ackley and George Levines contributed to this report.

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