Democratic challengers sailing a wave of displeasure with Republican leaders in Washington are collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars — sometimes in a matter of days or weeks — as anti-Trump fervor is translating into hard cash for this fall’s midterm fights.
In Texas, Harvard Law graduate and refugee activist Alex Triantaphyllis has raised nearly as much the incumbent, Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Tex.), who is seeking his 10th term.
In New Hampshire, first-time congressional candidate Maura Sullivan — a former Obama administration official who served in the Marines — has raised twice as much as the leading Republican seeking a seat previously held by the GOP.
And in Wisconsin, the leading Democrat trying to unseat House Speaker Paul D. Ryan raised $150,000 in two days after Ryan touted a high school secretary’s $1.50 salary increase thanks to the new tax law. Ryan eventually deleted his widely mocked tweet.
The strong showings in recent campaign finance filings offer a glimmer of hope for Democrats, who face a changing political environment in their effort to regain the majority in Congress. Polls that just weeks ago showed deep frustration with Republicans and President Trump now show voters softening toward the president’s party, as they warm to the tax law and feel the effects of a strong economy.
In addition, Republicans retain some financial advantages. The Republican National Committee has raised far more money than its Democratic counterpart, thanks in part to a surge in small-dollar donations sparked by Trump’s popularity with the GOP base. Some major Democratic donors, meanwhile, seem hesitant to invest in upstart, unproven “resistance” groups that might also support Democratic hopefuls.
Still, the intensity on the left is worrying GOP strategists.
“We acknowledge the left is energized right now,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, the main political arm of the influential Koch network of conservative donors. The remarks came at a gathering of donors in California last month. “It’s not just marches and such that they’re doing. It’s showing in some of the recent elections. There’s no question about it.”
Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, agreed that Democrats are energized but noted that much of their campaign cash may be spent early in the year during crowded primary contests.
“A lot of these candidates have primary challengers that are also raising tons of money. So, the preferred candidate of the party won’t necessarily go unscathed,” Hunt said. “They will need to exhaust the resources before the general election campaign and go into that fight with depleted resources.”
The committees that support Democratic congressional candidates posted strong fundraising figures in 2017, according to campaign finance reports that showed the two main organizations outraising their Republican counterparts by $32 million.
The increased fundraising extends to the top reaches of the Democratic Party. On Monday, aides to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced she raised a total $49.5 million for House Democrats in 2017, surpassing the roughly $40 million she’d raised by this point in the campaign cycle two years ago.
Mindful of the need to go aggressively on the offensive, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced Thursday that it would be expanding its list of targeted races to more than 100 — including contests in Alaska, South Carolina and rural eastern Maryland.
Donors on the left also are bypassing the main party groups and injecting money directly into the fight to win back Congress.
“There’s a real motivation to take back the House for Democrats, and there are people across this country who want to contribute to that cause,” said Triantaphyllis, 33, who last year raised more than $922,000 for his upstart bid in the Houston area.
The candidates, as well as the DCCC, have been particularly effective at attracting contributions of $200 or less from individual donors, according to campaign finance experts. These contributions are often seen as a measure of grass-roots energy.
In January, the number of donors making these small contributions was 20 times higher than in January of 2014, in the last midterm election cycle, said Trevor Davis, chief executive of ToSomeone, a political data analytics firm in Washington. Davis analyzed data from ActBlue, a Democratic fundraising platform.
About 40 percent of the DCCC’s fundraising in 2017 came from small-dollar contributions, campaign finance records show. Meanwhile, such donations made up 12 percent of what the National Republican Congressional Committee collected.
Attacks on Trump’s agenda, including the failed health-care repeal vote and the new tax law, have been among the most effective donation solicitation messages, according to the DCCC.
About a week after Michigan Democrat Haley Stevens launched her campaign for Congress, the House narrowly approved legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The bill ultimately failed, but on the day of the vote, donations flooded in to her campaign.
In her first quarter of fundraising, Stevens collected more than $323,000.
“That day, I heard from so many people who were disappointed and frustrated and made contributions to our race,” said Stevens, a former digital manufacturing executive and Obama administration official.
She still lags the leading GOP contender in the district, Lena Epstein. Epstein, a wealthy business executive, amassed $1.34 million in 2017, much of which she lent herself.
One way Trump critics in liberal areas have tried to influence the midterms is by pouring money into competitive races elsewhere in the country.
“I am definitely hoping to contribute to a blue wave in November 2018. I think that the policies and the leadership of Donald Trump is absolutely taking everything in the wrong direction,” said Peter Enzminger, a 31-year-old affordable-housing-project manager in deep-blue Los Angeles.
Enzminger, who is giving for the first time during a midterm election, has tried to have an impact by contributing to congressional candidates elsewhere in the country.
Despite this surge in contributions, the challenges faced by Democrats in their effort to retake control of Congress are significant.
Democrats expect to win back some seats, as any party out of power normally does during a midterm election. But they face a difficult map to gain outright control of either chamber. They must pick up two Senate seats and defend 26 others, including five that are in states Trump carried by double digits. And in the House, Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats.
Overall, Democrats are outgunned financially. The DNC entered 2018 with $6.5 million in the bank but owing nearly as much. In comparison, the Republican National Committee started the year with $39 million and no debt. The GOP committee is raising money at twice the pace of the DNC, fueled by the network of small donors fostered by Trump.
DNC officials say they are working to rebuild donor confidence and started increasing their investment in state parties as contributions flowed in last year. They note that their fundraising is on par with previous midterm years.
“We’ve come to [donors] with that plan, and they saw us execute this plan in 2017,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, a DNC spokeswoman. “That plan is to invest in every state and every Zip code, and that’s why you’ve seen the pace of fundraising pick up.”
The DCCC in particular has sought to capture the energy on the left by linking up with locally based anti-Trump groups. It also has tried to capitalize on issues that animate liberal activists, such as the failed health-care repeal vote and the new tax law. Fundraising messages touching on those two issues were the most effective, the group said.
The different factions within the Democratic Party “obviously want to defeat the right,” said Leah Hunt-Hendrix, co-founder and executive director of Solidaire, a network of liberal fundraisers. “But there’s also a battle going on for the soul of the Democratic Party.
“Where the money goes on the Democratic side will have an impact — not just on whether Democrats win, but which Democrats win and the kind of policies Democrats will stand for,” she said.
In some cases, major donors are eschewing both the national committees as well the resistance groups, which are new and untested.
Guy Saperstein, a retired attorney and major liberal donor from California, stopped giving to the party and the committees years ago, preferring to donate to more liberal groups. But he has yet to contribute to new organizations that have cropped up to oppose Trump.
“I certainly hope they can build into an effective infrastructure,” he said. “From what I’ve seen, I’ve been hopeful.”
Craig Timberg contributed to this report.