Six of the 10 congressional candidates who raised the most money during the final quarter of 2021 were Black or Latino, a result of diversity in pivotal races and a shift in the focus and strategy of political fundraising overall, a CQ Roll Call analysis found.
Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock led all House and Senate candidates by raising $9.8 million during the final three months of last year, a crucial fundraising phase ahead of this fall’s midterm elections. Former NFL and University of Georgia running back Herschel Walker, a Republican vying to challenge Warnock, ranked sixth, with $5.4 million raised. Both Warnock and Walker are Black.
The CQ Roll Call analysis of total receipts for the quarter excluded self-funding and looked only at what candidates reported receiving from donors.
The increase in the diversity of candidates raising the most campaign cash during the quarter reflects multiple factors and crosses party lines, political consultants, donors and academics say. It’s fueled, in part, by a rise in small-dollar donors. High-profile campaigns by people of color from President Barack Obama to congressional and gubernatorial candidates in 2018 and 2020 also provided inspiration for others to run and proof to potential donors that such candidates can succeed.
“Obama laid the foundation, but 2018 was a real turning point where you saw Black candidates running and winning or being super competitive in red districts or states all across the country,” said Doug Thornell, a partner at the political consulting firm SKDK and a former staffer for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Thornell, who is Black, said 2018 marked a shift as Black candidates running winning campaigns included Democratic Reps. Lauren Underwood of Illinois, Lucy McBath of Georgia, Antonio Delgado of New York and Colin Allred of Texas. Democrats Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida, who are both Black, also came close to winning gubernatorial races. In 2020, minority candidates, such as current Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison in South Carolina, posted enormous fundraising hauls.
“There was a realization by the Party that not only can Black candidates win in tough places but they can run these electrifying campaigns that can both mobilize and persuade voters,” added Thornell, whose firm is working for the campaigns of Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, and Pennsylvania Democratic senate candidate Malcolm Kenyatta, who is Black. “In both parties, they’re not limiting who they’re recruiting anymore. It's about time.”
Politics over identity
Florida Rep. Val B. Demings, a Democrat who is Black and seeking to oust Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who is Cuban American, reported raising $7.2 million to Rubio’s $5.2 million, though Rubio had $2.4 million more cash in his campaign account at the end of the year.
South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott, who is Black, raised $7 million for the quarter.
Nevada Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina elected to the Senate, rounded out the top 10 with $3.4 million in donations in the fourth quarter.
Even with heightened focus on race and the politics of identity, people who study campaign finance say political donations are mostly about partisanship.
“Candidates of color and women candidates are just as strong fundraisers as white men who are candidates,” said Jake Grumbach, a political science professor at the University of Washington who studies race and gender and campaign donations.
Women candidates tend to raise slightly more from women donors, and candidates of color do better with similar donors, he added. But mostly, Grumbach said, donors focus on the battleground races that will determine control of Congress.
“People seem to be donating primarily to key races for their party, House or Senate, rather than for reasons of descriptive representation,” he said.
A road ‘less challenging’
Stefanie Brown James, a co-founder of the Collective PAC, which supports Black candidates, said she’s seen a major shift in the past decade when it comes to support for candidates of color. Demings has essentially cleared the field in Florida, as has North Carolina Democratic contender Cheri Beasley. Beasley, who is Black, raised more than $2.1 million in the fourth quarter for the state’s open Senate race.
In 2016, now-Vice President Kamala Harris, who is Black and of South Asian descent, was an anomaly running for the Senate from California, Brown James said. Now, she said she expects even more candidates of color to run statewide in 2024.
This cycle, several candidates of color are running in Senate and House races in both parties, including Democratic Senate contenders Charles Booker in Kentucky and Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin, and GOP House candidates Wesley Hunt in Texas and John James in Michigan. Abrams is again running for governor in Georgia.
“We are seeing successful Black candidates get elected, in even places that are not majority people of color districts,” Brown James said. “That is very encouraging for a candidate that is trying to find where their path to victory may lie. It makes that road less challenging.”
Fundraising has also changed in recent years as turnkey payment platforms such as ActBlue and WinRed led to many campaigns focusing on raising small amounts from a large group of donors instead of bigger checks from fewer, more affluent donors. Small donations have also helped candidates, including those from minority groups, get more buy-in from potential voters.
“It is those low dollar amounts, less than $50, fueling not just their campaigns, but also really opening the door for folks in the community to feel like they’re part of the campaign,” Brown James said. “When voters feel they are part of the process…then they’re going to be invested voters.”
Among all House and Senate candidates in the fourth quarter, Demings had the most contributions in amounts of under $200, raising $4.2 million, followed by Warnock with $4 million. Among Republicans, Scott was the small-donor leader with $2.8 million raised.
Paul Brathwaite, a Democratic campaign contributor and lobbyist with Federal Street Strategies, agreed that many of the top-fundraising candidates of color are building on the small-dollar efforts of Obama and others.
“All of them have distinctive brands and personalities and attributes that folks are gravitating towards, the uniqueness of their stories,” said Brathwaite, who is Black. “I also think that the internet and social media and virtual events have broken down barriers. Lots more people are able to have access to candidates and get to know them. It has democratized and made both the price of admission and access to these candidates more affordable.”
Kira Sanbonmatsu, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said that parties and donors had traditionally overlooked, or pushed aside, women of color.
“What we’re seeing is a recognition of the importance and viability of women of color for these major offices, and I think we’re seeing a turning point in the competitiveness with which women of color are regarded,” she said. “In the past, we’ve interviewed women of color elected officials and candidates, and we’ve found that campaign finance is often identified as a barrier. But what we’re seeing this cycle is a change in that dynamic.”
Herb Jackson contributed to this report.