Democratic Primary Fights Drain Coffers as Republicans Bank Cash

(Bloomberg) -- The surge of enthusiasm among Democrats that’s produced a record number of candidates for Congress this year has come at a cost: spread out donations and campaign accounts drained by expensive primary fights.

Even as Democratic donors lavish money on the party’s U.S. House candidates in the first midterm election of Donald Trump’s presidency, an analysis of this week’s Federal Election Commission filings shows Republican candidates have more money in the bank in 17 of 23 districts rated as toss-ups in November by the non-partisan Cook Political Report.

"Republicans owe their advantage to incumbency in most of these close races," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance research group in Washington. "Victors of wide-open primaries with well-funded opponents are usually left with depleted coffers."

Plenty of time remains for fundraising before the November election. But the current imbalance suggests a potential advantage for Republicans who may have more resources in the early phase of the general election campaign to define their Democratic opponents in unflattering ways.

Bloomberg’s review looked at the highest campaign bank balance for individual candidates from both parties in the 23 most competitive districts.

Heavy Spending

The financial impact of a crowded field is illustrated by a race in suburban Houston, where Democrats Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and Laura Moser are spending heavily leading up to a May 22 run-off for the right to challenge nine-term Republican incumbent John Culberson.

While represented by a Republican in the House, the district was won by Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. That’s made it a top target for the Democratic Party, its donors and even for candidates, seven of whom ran in the March 6 primary. Fletcher and Moser emerged on top.

Fletcher has raised $1.2 million for her campaign, while Moser has pulled in $1.1 million, for a combined $2.3 million. Culberson raised $1.5 million.

But the two women spent a combined $1.8 million through March 31 with almost two months to go in the run-off race. Fletcher had $391,899 in her campaign account, while Moser had $92,177. Culberson, who faced no serious primary opposition, reported having $920,705 in the bank.

Party Division

Adding to the intensity of the Democratic race in Texas’s 7th District is that it’s also a fight between the establishment wing of the Democratic Party and the more liberal branch that rallied behind Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary.

Before the primary, the national committee that oversees Democratic House election efforts took the unusual step of releasing a disparaging memo about Moser, a writer and activist, because it feared she’s too liberal to win a general election in the affluent and highly educated area. Fletcher, a lawyer, has the support of national Democratic groups.

The big field of Democratic candidates across the country has diluted the party’s fundraising advantage. In the 23 contests reviewed, FEC filings show Democrats with active campaigns took in $53.6 million through the first quarter of 2018, compared to $40.2 million for Republicans. Those dollars, however, have been split among many more Democrats than Republicans, 75 to 38.

When overall totals for the top Republican and top Democratic fundraising candidate in all 23 districts are aggregated, the GOP has $27.6 million in the bank, compared to $17.7 million for Democrats.

Races with the largest differences between top cash-on-hand positions for each party:

District Republican with most cashDemocrat with most cashDifference  More in bank 
CA-10 Jeff Denham Josh Harder $ 1,551,619  Republican 
NJ-11 Jay Webber Mikie Sherrill $ 1,441,841  Democrat 
FL-26 Carlos Curbelo Debbie Mucarsel-Powell $ 1,399,194  Republican 
MN-3 Erik Paulsen Dean Phillips $ 1,305,675  Republican 
VA-10 Barbara Comstock Alison Kiehl Friedman $ 1,003,107  Republican 

Source: Bloomberg analysis of Federal Election Commission data. Excludes races without pending primaries or run-offs.

Another high-profile example of the cost to Democrats of crowded primaries can be found in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington. Clinton carried Republican Representative Barbara Comstock’s district by 10 percentage points and that’s put her on the list of most vulnerable GOP incumbents in the House.

The field of Democratic challengers in Virginia’s 10th District features two former Obama administration officials, a state senator, a former federal prosecutor, an Iraq war veteran and an infectious disease specialist. Four of them have raised $850,000 or more, with Alison Kiehl Friedman, a former State Department official and anti-human trafficking activist, leading the pack with almost $1.4 million raised.

While Friedman has excited Democratic donors most, State Senator Jennifer Wexton, in second place with $928,000 in receipts, has the endorsements of Virginia lawmakers including Representatives Gerry Connolly and Donald McEachin. Dan Helmer, who began his bid for the seat with a widely panned parody of "Top Gun," has raised $895,000.

Little Opposition

Comstock, who has deep roots in the Republican Party, has outraised all four of the top-fundraising Democrats, and ended March with $1 million more than Friedman. Her sole opponent in the Republican primary on June 12 has raised $179,000.

Candidates aren’t the only ones raising and spending money race in close contests. Super-political action committees like the Congressional Leadership Fund, which supports Republicans, and the House Majority PAC, which backs Democrats, will also spend tens of millions of dollars on races where they think their side needs help.

The super-PACs and their mega donors can “tilt the field very late in the cycle," said David Magleby, a political science professor at Brigham Young University.

Party committees, like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee will also play major roles. The DCCC had $49 million in the bank at the end of February, while the NRCC had $54 million.

Pointing to the party’s fundraising success in the first quarter, the DCCC said more than 40 Democratic challengers out-raised GOP incumbents during the period.

House Math

Republicans are trying to buck a historical trend in which the party that holds the White House almost always loses seats in midterm elections. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to win the House, which is viewed as more likely to change control than the Senate.

While candidates may be burning through resources, Magleby said Democratic donors will be there in the summer and fall for whoever emerges from Democratic primaries.

"More than in many prior midterms, the focus on the Democratic and progressive side is going to be to deny Trump a House majority," he said. Even if their favorite primary candidate doesn’t make it to the general election, Magleby said donors “will come around because the stakes are so high.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.