Is it time for Republicans to start freaking out?
More than 40 House Republican incumbents were outraised in the final quarter of 2017 by one — or several — of their Democratic opponents, according to the latest round of fundraising numbers. And of that group, more than a dozen had less cash on hand than their Democratic challengers.
For the GOP, here’s the really disturbing part: The trendline is getting worse, not better. Despite the myriad advantages of incumbency and control of Congress, there are more House members with less cash on hand than their Democratic challengers than the quarter before.
“Those numbers should be concerning for all Republicans,” said Mike DuHaime, a GOP consultant based in New Jersey. “This is going to be the most challenging political environment since 2006, so you have to be ready. And lot of these members came in after 2006, so for many, this will be the most challenging environment they’ve ever run in. And that’s going to prove difficult.”
A flood of Democratic money poured into House races across the country in 2017, provided in large part by small-dollar, online contributors animated by opposition to President Donald Trump and the Republican majorities in Congress. More than 80 Democratic challengers in Republican-held districts have at least $250,000 in cash on hand at the end of the year — a sign that the House battlefield may be wider than previously thought.
Republicans, despite a recent uptick in the polls since the beginning of the year, face significant structural challenges, the fundraising figures show. A slew of recent retirements in expensive media markets, like New Jersey and California, will force Republicans to spend more to defend open seats as they bid farewell to well-funded incumbents. But Republicans believe that the tax bill — passed in late December, so too late to affect these financial reports — will help them rebound in the first quarter of 2018.
John J. Faso of New York, who was first elected in 2016, is among the Republican members facing several cash-flush opponents. Democrats Antonio Delgado, an attorney, and Pat Ryan, a technology executive and veteran, both outraised the freshman congressman, while Delgado and yet another Democrat, businessman Brian Flynn, lead Faso in cash on hand.
Tom Garrett (R-Va.) was outraised by three Democratic opponents, all of whom also hold more cash in the bank than the freshman congressman.
Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who’s cruised to reelection since the late 1980s, is facing two well-funded Democrats. Harley Rouda, a businessman, and Hans Keirstead, a stem-cell researcher, topped Rohrabacher in fundraising last quarter, while Rouda now holds a cash-on-hand advantage over the congressman. Rohrabacher’s traditionally Republican seat in Orange County narrowly backed Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Four Democratic House members raised less money than their Republican challengers, including Matt Cartwright, who’s defending a slice of eastern Pennsylvania that swung hard in favor of Trump in 2016. He was outraised by John Chrin, a self-funding former investment banker.
Republicans acknowledged that some members are out of practice, leaving them behind with just over nine months left before Election Day.
“Sitting and dialing and pushing for money — they’re not used to doing that, and most of them don’t like to,” said Rob Stutzman, a California-based GOP consultant. “So some of this is fat, flabby and out-of-shape fundraising muscles. Those are districts where we should be raising more.”
Republican strategists stressed that falling behind in cash on hand — the amount sitting in a member’s bank account — is a serious problem because “the only thing that matters is cash on hand, and the Republican incumbent members who have Democratic challengers with a cash-on-hand advantage need to work harder and raise more money,” said Corry Bliss, the executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the flagship outside group tasked with maintaining the GOP’s majority in the House.
But Republicans, including Bliss, also noted that the money raised by Democrats will first be spent in potentially bruising primaries, draining Democrats’ war chests ahead of the general election.
Democrats “will spend their money [in] a June primary trying to make new friends, only to lose in November,” said Cam Savage, a GOP consultant advising Faso, who added that the congressman won by an eight-point margin in 2016.
Democrats, however, believe that the fundraising surge won’t diminish after the primaries because the “biggest injection of energy for Democrats is reading the front page every day, and that’s not going away,” said John Lapp, a Democratic consultant who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s independent-expenditure unit in the 2006 cycle. “The Democratic surge in fundraising is just another example of the Democratic surge in energy in this election overall, and that that energy is being monetized.”
Not every House Republican is getting outraised: The party still has its share of campaign-cash powerhouses, including among its most vulnerable members. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), whose district backed Clinton by 10 points in 2016, continues to lead more than half a dozen Democrats jockeying to take her on in November.
Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) holds fives times more cash in the bank than his likely Democratic opponent, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, in his south Florida district, which Clinton won by the second-widest margin in any GOP-held House seat in 2016.
“Part of what sustains a candidate in a difficult environment is a strong personal brand, but for those trying to build a brand for the first time while trying to dodge a hail of bullets — let’s just say that’s complicated,” said Josh Penry, a Republican strategist based in Colorado. “The candidates who have an established strong, independent voice are in a different and stronger place than those without one.”
At least one Republican got the message in the last quarter: John Culberson of Texas. The Houston-area congressman finished the summer with less cash on hand than two Democrats, but by Christmas, Culberson raised more money than all of his potential opponents.
Republicans also believe that passing tax reform in late December — only weeks before the close of the year — “should help” with the first quarter of 2018, Stutzman said. And the party’s chances of holding onto the House appear to have ticked up over the past month. What was once a double-digit deficit in generic ballot polling is down to seven points, according to the RealClearPolitics average.
“The Republican Party needed a win in a big way, and the tax bill was a win,” said Danny Laub, a GOP consultant. “From a donor perspective, I do think the tax bill is certainly a positive for fundraising.”
Former Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.) said that Republicans have “put together some basic wins for their base that will be articulated very clearly in November, and it’ll be classic language — Republicans voted for less taxes, and Democrats wanted amnesty and shut down the government.”
Republican outside groups can also shore up weak GOP members. The Congressional Leadership Fund and American Action Network, its sister organization, raised more than $66 million in 2017, and “January  was, by far, the best month we’ve had this cycle,” Bliss said.
That outside-group commitment worries Lapp, who said that “when you look at $35 million the Koch brothers spent on that tax plan, then you know they are similarly getting ready to go to spend that kind of dark, special-interest money in the general election,”
Andy Kim, who served on Obama’s National Security Council, raised more money than Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), a self-funder who has easily won reelection since 2014.
“We have a ton of momentum in the district,” Kim said, noting that a thousand volunteers are working with his campaign. “That’s what happens when you’re running against the lead author on the Trumpcare bill and the only New Jersey congressman who voted for the tax bill.”