Operatives: Abysmal Campaign Fundraising in Third Quarter
Only a few days after the third quarter ended, party operatives warned that the past three months will yield some of the worst Congressional fundraising totals in recent memory.
House and Senate candidates typically bring in lackluster hauls in the third quarter of an off year. It’s traditionally a low point in the cycle because donors are not focused on an election more than a year away and put off writing checks until after summer vacation.
But these past three months will feature some of the most dismal fundraising numbers in the past few cycles, according to interviews with 20 operatives on both sides of the aisle. Consultants speculated fundraising across the board could be down about 25 percent this quarter, while others complained that it took twice as many solicitations to meet their goals.
The bipartisan grumbling varied: Some Democrats griped that the Jewish New Year took up otherwise prolific fundraising days in September, and one Republican operative complained that Hurricane Irene slowed down fundraising in August.
In the end, a laundry list of factors contributed to a poor fundraising quarter, including the effects of a struggling economy on normally deep-pocketed donors.
“I think it’s really challenging right now for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the economy,” Democratic consultant Mark Nevins said. “People are reluctant to invest heavily in campaigns right now because they have their own personal financial concerns to worry about.”
Action — or lack thereof — on Capitol Hill also contributed to poor fundraising. In July, the finger-pointing associated with the debt ceiling debate left a bad taste in the mouths of small-dollar donors.
That was followed by the August recess, which always falls in the third quarter and deprives Members of a month’s worth of fundraising events with K Street donors.
“I think you’re going to see incumbents on both sides a little bit off more than usual due to the lighter schedule this September in Washington,” Republican consultant Brad Todd said. “The debt fight, also, took a ton of calendar in July.”
Many Members hit the road to raise money during the August recess, but sources say traveling for fundraisers is not as lucrative as in previous cycles.
Again, a poor economy is partially to blame. While the earlier recession dried out fertile fundraising ground in New York City, the most recent economic downturn is more widespread. The donor class in second-tier fundraising destinations such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Orlando are thinking twice before opening their wallets.
Many consultants also described extreme competition in the fundraising market with the presidential campaign. Candidates must be careful not to hit the same city within a couple of weeks of a presidential candidate’s trip to raise money there.
“It’s been pretty difficult for House candidates, even for the Members. The president is sucking up everything,” one Democratic fundraiser said. “If he’s going anywhere within a two week radius around your event, it’s really difficult to try to do anything.”
Democrats lamented an “aggressive” fundraising campaign for President Barack Obama’s re-election — one that could eventually raise $1 billion — leaves many Democratic House and Senate candidates dialing for dollars. The Democratic National Committee and Obama’s re-election campaign have programs that push donors to give the maximum allowed under Federal Election Commission rules. That’s a limit of $70,800 to party committees and political action committees and $46,200 for candidates this cycle.
“It makes it hard for Congressional candidates who constantly hear, ‘I’m federally maxed out,’” the Democratic fundraiser said.
Meanwhile, national donors are spread thin on the GOP side, too — especially because of the varied field for the Republican nomination.
“Having an active fundraising presidential field, it occupies the attention of the biggest A-list bundles in a given state,” a Republican consultant said. “It’s not that donors are tapped out. What happened is the very best bundlers are distracted.”
What’s more, the competition for fundraising became more cutthroat this cycle with the emergence of super PACs. Some donors opted to write a large, anonymous check instead of doling out smaller funds to individual candidates.
“There’s also a lot more competition from third-party groups that are out there,” Republican consultant Scott Cottington said. “The ground has shifted quite a bit with super PACs and presidential campaigns.”
In House races, some consultants blamed redistricting for slow fundraising. Many states have not finished their Congressional maps, and candidates have a tough time pitching themselves to donors if they don’t know which seat they will seek.
“It makes it very difficult to raise money when you don’t know who’s in your district,” Nevins added. “Because there are new lines, you’re seeing a lot of crowded primary fields. You’re splitting the party’s established pot of money four ways, five ways.”
In previous quarters this cycle, a strong House challenger brought in $200,000 and well-funded Members topped $250,000 during a three-month period. That number varies for challengers depending on the district, whether they have an established fundraising network, when they announced their candidacy and the competitive nature of their races. Individual Member fundraising can also vary greatly because of the district, committee assignments and re-election campaign.
Daren Berringer, a Democratic consultant, said one of his clients is bringing in half of the money through a special fundraising program as he or she did two years ago during this time.
“Not only has the quarter been difficult for fundraising, but even when people are contributing, I’ve noticed that those contributions are not as high as they’ve traditionally been,” Berringer said.
Even K Street money has been harder to come by. The large freshman class began milking the PAC community early this cycle, and now there’s not much money left in some accounts — again, due to the faltering economy.
“I know for a fact, out of my circle, this has been the hardest fundraising quarter that we’ve ever had,” one Republican PAC fundraiser said. “We all kind of looked at each other last Friday and said, ‘Thank God it’s over.’”