Candidate, Party Fundraising Skyrockets in Latest FEC Summary

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By Kenneth P. Doyle

A big increase in the number of well-funded challengers competing in the 2018 midterm elections helped push total fundraising by congressional candidates to a new high in the first six months of the current election cycle.

Total receipts of congressional candidates leapt to $386 million, according to a recently released statistical summary by the Federal Election Commission. That was a jump of $101.5 million—or more than a third—over the $285 million in receipts at the same point in 2016 election cycle.

In addition to candidates, political parties also are raising far more than at the same point in the last election cycle, according to the latest FEC summary. Total fundraising by party committees rose to nearly $328.2 million, more than $75 million over the same point in the last election cycle.

Party fundraising has been boosted by new, higher contributions limits created by a 2014 law, which allow a national party committee donor to contribute up to $101,700 to new accounts for convention, headquarters, and legal costs.

These new accounts reported receiving a total of $39.7 million, through June 30, the FEC said. The new Democratic national party committee accounts received a total of $6.8 million, while the corresponding Republican national party committee accounts received about five times that amount—$32.9 million.

Biggest Increases in Recent Years

The recent increases in total candidate and party fundraising are the largest seen over the last several election cycles, according to FEC statistics. Candidates and party committees are subject by federal contribution limits and have seen relatively limited fundraising increases in recent years.

Meanwhile, money raised by super political action committees and other outside campaign spending groups, which are exempt from contribution limits, has shot up in recent elections. Super PACs and other groups are continuing to raise and spend large amounts in the 2018 cycle, the latest FEC statistics show.

The FEC’s total candidate fundraising figure includes money raised by 977 House and Senate candidates, a nearly one-third increase over the 658 congressional candidates running at the same point in the 2016 election cycle. The total includes those candidates set to run in the midterm elections in November 2018 as well as candidates in expensive special elections that have already taken place this year.

Among the special elections this year was a race for a U.S. House seat from Georgia, which shattered campaign money records. The race was won in June by Republican Karen Handel, even though her Democratic opponent Jon Ossoff raised $30.2 million in contributions for his primary campaign committee, compared with $6.2 million for Handel. Outside spending in the Georgia race by super PACs and other groups reached nearly $30.5 million, with most of the money going to support Handel.

More Democratic Challengers

Political scientist Michael Malbin, who heads the nonprofit Campaign Finance Institute, said that at the end of June, there were 209 Democratic challengers registered with the FEC who had raised at least $5,000. Malbin said in a recent blog post that the number of Democratic challengers had more than doubled the previous high mark since 2003.

Those Democratic candidates are being helped by online campaign contributions, such as those raised by ActBlue, a Democratic PAC with an online fundraising platform that has been raising record amounts this year. Act Blue credits the Democratic “resistance” to President Donald Trump for motivating grass roots donors.

In a recent blog post, ActBlue said the total amount that Democratic donors gave using the PAC’s online tools in August 2017—$32.2 million—was more than double the total of nearly $15.4 million raised in August of the last election cycle.

In 2009, according to Malbin, the Republicans had 78 challengers running in congressional races with at least $5,000 raised. The early GOP challengers in 2009 foreshadowed the party gaining majority control of the House in the 2010 elections, he said, adding that it remains to be seen whether the same will hold true for the Democrats in 2018.

“Winning the first inning is not the same as winning the ninth,” Malbin’s blog post said.

Republicans Lead in House Fundraising

Despite the large number of Democratic challengers, FEC figures showed total fundraising as of June 30 by all Democratic House candidates—$131.3 million—was running slightly behind the $137.5 million raised by all Republican House candidates.

Democratic Senate candidates were ahead of Republicans in total fundraising by a significant margin—$83.3 million to $27.8 million. Senate races in 2018 include a relatively large number of Democratic incumbents defending potentially vulnerable seats.

Despite Democrats’ success in recruiting candidates and raising money for them, Republicans may have an ace in the hole. The winning card could be campaign money from outside groups, including super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts independent of candidates and parties. Those PACs played a key role in the recent Georgia special election.

Total PAC fundraising—including money raised by super PACs and “hybrid” PACs that can raise unlimited contributions—reached $673 million by June 30, according to the lastest FEC statistical summary. That was down somewhat from the $726 million raised by PACs at the same point in the 2016 election cycle but still much more than the total amounts raised by candidates or parties.

And Republicans appear to have a big edge in funding for outside groups that favor the GOP. For example, the super PACs endorsed by Republican congressional leaders—the Congressional Leadership Fund and Senate Leadership Fund—had raised a total of more than $20 million this year through June 30, nearly three times more that the $7.5 million raised by super PACs linked to Democratic leaders—the House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC.

Role of Outside Money Has Grown

Outside spending groups have played an increasingly important role in elections since the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC. The court decision lifted a longstanding ban on corporate spending to influence federal elections and sparked a boom in outside campaign money.

The nonprofit Issue One, which supports restrictions on campaign money, noted in a recent analysis that outside groups accounted for a total of $1.4 billion—or 21.7 percent—of all the money spent to influence the 2016 elections. That was up by tenfold over a decade from 2.4 percent of total campaign money coming from outside groups in the 2006 election.

The Issue One study reported that 10 congressional races in 2016 saw total outside spending greater than the combined amount spent by candidates actually competing in the race. In 2014, there were a dozen races in which outside money eclipsed candidate spending. In 2010, when the Citizens United ruling came down, there was a single congressional race where outside money was greater than candidate money. In 2008 and 2006, there were no such races.

Michael Beckel of Issue One said that, even though total candidate money raised in 2018 is running higher than in recent elections, he still expects outside spending to be greater than total candidate spending in possibly a dozen of the closest congressional races next year. Beckel said in a phone interview that candidates have to amass a large amount of limited contributions over a period of two years or more, while super PACs and other groups can come in at the last minute to raise unlimited contributions and intervene in a close race.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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