Why you should care
Control of America’s upper house of Congress hangs in the balance.
With just a few days to go before Election Day, things are looking pretty grim for Democrats. Their second-term president is growing more and more unpopular, a drag on the ticket even though he’s not up for re-election. They have no hope of winning the House and are in fact likely to lose seats. And their prospects for remaining the majority party in the Senate are growing dimmer by the day.
But there is one glimmer of hope amid the onslaught of bad news, an advantage that helps — most importantly — keep their Senate prospects alive, if not robust. And that’s cash.
All told, the three main fundraising arms of the national Democratic Party have raised $472 million for the 2013–14 campaign cycle, according to the latest figures from the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors money in campaigns and government. That’s a $69 million fundraising edge over their Republican counterparts.
In the post-Citizens United age, party committees aren’t the only big election spenders.
While the Democratic National Committee, the party’s central organizing structure, actually trails its GOP counterpart by $10 million, the party’s House and Senate fundraising arms more than make up for it. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee trumped their Republican rivals by $41 million and $38 million, respectively.
Of course, in the post-Citizens United age, party committees aren’t the only big election spenders — and when it comes to spending by outside groups, Republicans have a big upper hand. Groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads Super PAC and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have poured in millions to boost Republican candidates, and recent data shows such money has narrowed the gap. For instance, outside groups have spent $40 million more for Senate Republicans than for Senate Democrats, recent Campaign Finance Institute data shows.
Still, parties remain the most important players because they have many more tools in their arsenal, says Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute — especially when it comes to getting out the vote. Outside groups are legally prohibited from coordinating with candidates. But party organizations can oversee voter outreach efforts, conduct polls and develop voter rolls — and “can be much more effective than any of the outside groups on voter mobilization,” he says. And getting out the vote, after all, is where most campaigns focus in an election’s last weeks. By then television advertising — what most super PACs specialize in — will have limited effect, says Malbin: With the airwaves supersaturated, more ads make voters tune out, not turn out. In other words, Democrats’ formal party fundraising advantage still matters, even though Republican-affiliated groups are doing their darnedest to handicap it.
Quite a reversal from George W. Bush’s spaghetti-style Western honorifics doled out to “bundlers” who delivered piles of checks.
That the Democratic Party has become a prime-time fundraiser isn’t news to those inside the Beltway. But it’s quite a reversal from the days when the GOP used to be the fundraising king. Remember George W. Bush’s “Rangers” and “Pioneers,” the spaghetti-style Western honorifics doled out to “bundlers” who delivered piles of checks? Less noticed was that the GOP also ruled the small-dollar range back then. Two words, son: direct mail. “The Republicans had a much better mailing list, much better direct mail campaign than the Democrats,” says Malbin.
The GOP’s donor base has eroded since then for two reasons. First, the party didn’t keep up with technology, while presidential campaigns like Howard Dean’s in 2004 and Barack Obama’s in 2008 vaulted Democrats far ahead online. Although Republicans’ tech and small-dollar efforts have begun to recover, they’re still nowhere near the Democrats’. The other reason is a “brand name problem among Republican supporters,” says Malbin. Conservatives no longer trust “establishment” Republicans and are funneling their money instead to tea party groups and organizations funded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch. “Friendly fire on the Democratic side doesn’t even come close,” a Sunlight Foundation analysis concluded in September.
Democratic leaders have not only done a better job of keeping their base in line and on tech, but in Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, they also have two arm twisters and entreaters extraordinaire — more traditional than high-tech, but no less effective. Pelosi alone has raised $80 million for her party for the 2014 campaign, Politico reported in September. Both also have former aides running big-dollar super PACs to raise and spend money in support of their colleagues. “Those are almost party organizations,” says Malbin.
In all likelihood, it won’t be enough to win them the Senate this time around. But if Democrats manage to hold onto the upper chamber, their money juggernaut will have had a lot to do with it.