Coffers Fill Faster for Democrats in Some House Races

(Bloomberg) -- Democrats raised more money than Republicans in 2017 in some key midterm congressional districts, even as the Republican National Committee leveraged the power of the presidency to collect twice as much as its Democratic counterpart.

The minority party in Congress is showing early financial strength in competitive districts where incumbents aren’t seeking re-election, Federal Election Commission filing data compiled by Bloomberg shows. In a dozen competitive races for open seats, Democrats have collectively raised $23.3 million -- more than three times as much as their GOP opponents -- and have the best-funded candidate in all but three of those races.

The battle for dollars revealed by the latest disclosures, including many filed late Wednesday, offers early clues into whether the Republicans will keep control of both the House and Senate or whether Democrats can stage a comeback after their devastating 2016 losses. Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to take the House and two to secure a majority in the Senate, an outcome well within the bounds of historical precedent in midterm elections.

A wave of Republican retirements in the House has opened opportunities for Democratic candidates. Incumbents generally start each election cycle with money in the bank, but where there’s no incumbent, all candidates start even. Because some incumbents didn’t announce their plans not to seek re-election until the fourth quarter, Republicans hoping to succeed them may have to work harder to raise cash.

In the California districts held by GOP Representatives Ed Royce and Darrel Issa, there are no Republicans on the ballot. Both seats are viewed as leaning Democratic by the Cook Political Report. A Democrat, Rebecca Sherrill, took in $1.2 million in the New Jersey district of retiring Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, making her the top fundraiser. The only Republican in the race, which is rated a toss-up, raised $8,659.

Here are some takeaways from year-end reports filed by late Wednesday:

Trump Effect Helps Republican Committee Raise $132 Million

The Republican National Committee said it raised $132.5 million during the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, a record in a non-election year. The Democratic National Committee reported $65.1 million.

As of Dec. 31, the RNC said it had $38.8 million in the bank. That’s almost six times more than the $6.5 million reported by the DNC. The RNC also reported zero debt, while the DNC owes $6.1 million.

Though the $5.4 million a month the DNC raised on average in 2017 lags far behind what the GOP collected, it’s not far off the norm for a political party in an odd-numbered year. In 2009, after the election of President Barack Obama, who shattered all fundraising records in capturing the White House, the DNC raised an average of $6.7 million a month. The RNC and Trump have broken new ground in raising money immediately after a presidential election.

Some of the RNC’s fundraising strength came from the Rolodex and celebrity status of billionaire casino mogul Steve Wynn, who was the party’s top fundraiser until he resigned Saturday after reports of sexual misconduct. Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts was named Wednesday as his replacement.

Democratic Fundraising Focused on Congress Shows Strength

While bigger money for super political action committees, parties and campaigns normally rolls in during election years, there are early signals that Democrats have some strength going into 2018.

SMP, formerly known as the Senate Majority PAC, a super political action committee aligned with Senate Democrats, reported raising $20.7 million in 2017 and had $13.7 on hand at the end of the year. That compares to $13.6 million and $6.3 million for the Senate Leadership Fund, a super-PAC affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which backs the party’s House candidates, out-raised its Republican counterpart for the eighth straight month in December, $9.3 million to $4 million. And while the National Republican Congressional Committee broke its record for fundraising in an off-year and had more money in the bank -- $43.6 million to the Democratic committee’s $38.9 million -- those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Under federal election law, party committees can accept contributions of as much as $101,700 from big donors, but there’s a catch. That money, for the parties’ legal and headquarters accounts, can’t be used to influence federal elections. The NRCC has raised more than $20 million in money it can’t use to influence elections, but that still counts as money in the bank on its FEC filings. The DCCC has raised less than $5 million for those accounts, meaning more of its money can be spent trying to actually win seats in November.

The DCCC ended the year with a huge edge in raising money from small-dollar donors, those who give $200 or less, often seen as a barometer of grassroots enthusiasm. Those donors added $41.6 million to the DCCC’s coffers in 2017, compared to just $9.8 million for the NRCC. The $38.9 million the DCCC had on Dec. 31 was the most ever for the end of the year.

Trump Committees Attract Schwarzman, Small-Dollar Donors

Trump entered 2018 with about $32.2 million in his re-election campaign and two affiliated committees, the federal election filings show. Trump’s campaign committee and two joint fundraising committees with the RNC, Trump Victory and Trump Make America Great Again Committee, together raised more than $52 million in 2017. Blackstone Group LP Chief Executive Officer Stephen Schwarzman was among those who contributed to Trump Victory, sending $344,400 in December to the committee.

Trump’s re-election committee has had success with online fundraising and small-dollar donors. That’s been fueled in part by his merchandising.

Since taking office, he’s held campaign-style rallies in Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio, West Virginia and other states. The rallies double as re-election fundraising events because they bolster sales of Trump’s campaign merchandise, like the iconic red “Make American Great Again” caps.

It’s unusual for a sitting president to raise money for re-election as aggressively as Trump has during his first year in office. Obama had been in office more than two years before he headlined his first re-election fundraiser. President George W. Bush raised a total of $268,423 in his first two years in office, FEC records show.

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