Congress

Women donors could again shatter records in 2020 elections

2018 wave propelled unprecedented number of women into Congress

The success of women candidates like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., may be helping spur increased political giving by women as the 2020 election cycle heats up. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Female donors, who opened their wallets like never before in the 2018 midterm elections and helped propel an unprecedented number of women into Congress, appear poised again to break records in their contributions to congressional and presidential contenders running in 2020.

The crowded field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, along with hotly contested Senate and House races, are motivating first-time women donors to federal campaigns, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which has tracked donors’ gender for decades.

Women donors made big strides in closing a longtime gender gap in politics during the 2017-18 midterm elections. Political donors and fundraisers say they expect even more women to contribute to federal candidates as the 2019-20 cycle heats up and as reproductive health care becomes an increasingly prominent issue, with strict new anti-abortion laws passing in such states as Alabama and Missouri.

Donations in the first quarter of this year offer an indication that women’s political mobilization, fueled in part in the 2017-18 cycle by liberal females angered by the results of the 2016 election and the Trump presidency, may have a lasting effect on the nation’s political fundraising.

“Starting in 2017, you were coming right off the election, and there was this energy and engagement and people were trying to figure out all the various ways they could make a difference,” said Debbie Walsh, who runs the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics. “The engagement is still there.”

The 2017-18 surge of female donors doesn’t seem to be a blip, though the increase slowed somewhat in the first quarter of this year, said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

The number of women donors who gave more than $200 to congressional campaigns in the first quarter of this year was up by 25 percent when compared with the first quarter of the 2017-18 cycle, when a record number of women donated to campaigns.

“This is the reaction to 2016 and the growing, snowball effect of women’s activism,” said Krumholz, whose group tracks the gender of donors with software and research.

Flashback: Here’s Carol Miller’s advice for GOP women thinking of running for office

Wooing women in the GOP

Although the surge in women donors is more marked among Democrats, Republican women, too, are joining in and the party is recognizing this. Republicans are working to recruit more women candidates, for example. And female donors on the GOP side of the aisle say they’re also mobilizing to help these women in primaries.

“It’s important to support Republican women candidates early in the cycle and particularly in primaries, and so I’m trying to recruit more and more women friends to give to good Republicans running in primaries,” said Candace Straight, a longtime GOP donor in New Jersey.

Straight says she’s been involved in efforts to help some of the Republican women senators who are up in 2020, including Susan Collins of Maine. And she has joined Winning for Women, a group that started in 2017 to help Republican women candidates raise money and win elections.

Winning for Women’s executive director, Rebecca Schuller, says her organization has 465,000 people signed up to receive emails and action alerts.

“What we’ve seen so far this year is right-of-center women jumping into the ring,” Schuller said. “We’re starting to see donations tick in.”

The Trump 2020 campaign has also brought in more donations from women, the Center for Responsive Politics found. Almost half of the president’s re-election donors are women, compared with about a quarter during his first run in the 2015-16 cycle.

Abortion politics

Still, it’s women giving to Democratic candidates that has seen the most dramatic uptick. “Whatever the numbers were for the first quarter, the second quarter will smash that number given what Republicans are doing on abortion,” said Democratic fundraiser Mike Fraioli.

Schuller, whose group doesn’t take a position on social issues such as abortion, says it’s too soon to tell whether the debate will affect GOP fundraising. “We need more women voices at the table to help the conversation in general,” she said.

EMILY’s List, a fundraising network for women candidates who favor abortion rights, has continued to see an uptick in interest, said the group’s Tonya Williams, though the organization hasn’t released new information on the number of women who have reached out with an interest in running for office.

In the 2017-18 cycle, EMILY’s List said an unprecedented 46,000 women sought advice or training on running a campaign in federal, state or local elections. The EMILY’s List staff roster swelled to more than 100 people, Williams noted.

Williams sees continued interest, even inspiration, among women. “Definitely women are upset about what is happening across the country with the restrictions on abortion,” she said. “You could also attribute some of the sustained enthusiasm to women seeing the freshman class of congressional women, who are working and who are making noise and who are making sure that people know they are there.”

Walsh, whose center at Rutgers tracks the number of women running for office, conducts nonpartisan training for those interested in mounting a campaign and says the level of interest this year is more in line with the 2015-16 cycle and is down from the peak years of 2017 and 2018. But more women are seeking to challenge sitting members of Congress.

In the 2018 midterms, 11 women mounted primary challenges (eight Democrats and three Republicans). So far this cycle, 20 women (16 Democrats and four Republicans) are taking on incumbents in primaries, Walsh’s data show.

This is a category with some high-profile winners, such as New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who beat Joseph Crowley for a New York City House seat in 2018.

This year, Democrat Marie Newman is again challenging Rep. Daniel Lipinski, a moderate Democrat from Chicago, after losing narrowly in a 2018 primary.

When liberal women donated to congressional candidates early in the last cycle in historic numbers, it was their only federal outlet to express their disdain of the president. This cycle, though, offers Democratic donors two dozen presidential candidates seeking to beat Trump, in addition to congressional races. So it’s little surprise that more women — 1,000 percent more — donated to presidential candidates this quarter than in the first quarter of the 2016 cycle.

What is more notable: More women donated to congressional candidates in the first quarter of this year when compared with the first quarter of 2017.

Most Democratic presidential candidates don’t want money from registered federal lobbyists, so Invariant’s Anne MacMillan said she’s all in for House and Senate races.

A fundraising group she’s part of, known as the Jenkins Hill Society, has surged in popularity. After the 2018 elections put Democrats in power, “I think people saw a return on the investment,” MacMillan said. “This year, we have even more members.”

Money for all

Some women who aren’t new to donating to presidential candidates still are doing something for the first time this cycle: They’re donating to more than one candidate in the primary. Kris Randolph, a Democrat who lives in Washington, is one. She’s given money to Sen. Kamala Harris, the California Democrat, and former Vice President Joe Biden, among others. “I definitely don’t have that much to give, but I like what I’m hearing, and I want to make sure they’re on the debate stage,” Randolph said.

Mel Ulle, who is active in Democratic fundraising in Denver, has also given to multiple presidential candidates, including all the women running. “As horrible as this Alabama abortion ban is, I believe we will look back in a few years and say that, more than anything, it engaged women donors in politics,” said Ulle, CEO of Philanthropy Expert, which advises clients on charitable and political giving.

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