Scores of Republicans were once again outraised by their Democratic opponents in the recently concluded third quarter. And GOP outside groups now have to decide how to best allocate their finite resources with less than three weeks to go until Election Day.
The two major Republican groups that spend in House races — the National Republican Congressional Committee and the House leadership-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund — have already begun to move money to different races, as have their Democratic counterparts, in an end-of-cycle process known as “triage.”
“The role of the outside group is to help, not to win,” said Rob Simms, a former NRCC executive director. “And at the end of the day, the candidate or the members have to rise and fall on their own strengths and weaknesses. And obviously, fundraising is a significant factor in that.”
One Democratic strategist familiar with outside spending compared campaigns to a three-legged stool: the candidate, the party committee and the outside group.
“If the candidate leg is not there, that’s the first stool to be thrown overboard,” the strategist said.
Still, GOP groups have so far largely continued to spend in races where their candidates have been outraised in the third quarter that ended Sept. 30. (Fundraising reports were due at midnight Monday.) And this comes on the heels of prior warnings that help may not arrive for nominees who weren’t pulling their own weight.
That’s because a candidate’s fundraising and own strengths are not the only factors in outside spending decisions. The groups’ main goal is to help win races, so they also take into account public and private polling, media market prices, and where other outside groups are spending.
Watch: Democrats Are Breaking Fundraising Records 3 Weeks From Election Day
Republicans realized early in the cycle that Democrats were likely to post huge fundraising numbers, so leaders started alerting lawmakers and candidates to make sure they were raising money on their own.
That was the message after Democrat Conor Lamb’s surprise win in a March special election in a deep-red Pennsylvania district. NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers of Ohio encouraged members to bolster their own fundraising, according to lawmakers at a GOP conference meeting a day after the election.
In July, CLF Executive Director Corry Bliss told Politico, “Those who are not willing to help themselves should not complain when outside support does not come their way.”
After a razor-thin victory for Republican Troy Balderson in an August special election in Ohio, Bliss issued another blunt message: “Any Republican running for Congress getting vastly outraised by an opponent needs to start raising more money.”
But in subsequent quarters, dozens of Republicans have struggled to keep pace with the wave of Democratic money pouring into House races.
In the third quarter, 110 Democratic candidates outraised their GOP opponents, according to an analysis by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the races of 82 of them as competitive.
For Republicans, the kind of money flowing into Democratic campaigns and outside groups on the left is unlike any previous cycle.
“It is a tsunami of Democratic money,” Simms said.
But GOP groups aren’t ready to abandon most of their outraised candidates — at least not yet.
In the 50 races where the NRCC and CLF are currently spending money, 46 of them involve GOP candidates who brought in less than their Democratic opponents in the most recent quarter, according to an analysis of outside spending by Daily Kos Elections.
The Republican groups have been engaging in the usual triage, moving money to races where spending could be more effective. But those moves ahead of Monday’s filing deadline likely involved other factors besides fundraising numbers.
Earlier this month, the NRCC canceled its ad buy in Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder’s 3rd District. Yoder raised an impressive $1.1 million in the third quarter, but his Democratic opponent Sharice Davids raised more than twice as much, raking in $2.8 million.
The incumbent still had a cash on hand advantage — $1.3 million to Davids’ $1 million. Inside Elections rates the race Tilts Democratic.
Conversely, CLF is still spending in California’s 25th District, where Democrat Katie Hill has outraised GOP Rep. Steve Knight in previous quarters. Hill’s third-quarter haul of $3.8 million was one of the largest for any Democratic House candidate — eight times Knight’s $456,000 total.
The Democrat also had a sizable cash-on-hand advantage, ending Sept. 30 with $2.4 million in the bank to Knight’s $419,000. Inside Elections rates the race a Toss-up.
Keeping their edge
The fundraising figures from the special elections this cycle provided an indication that Democrats were going to be raising lots of money. And it’s especially helpful to Democrats that their nominees themselves are raising the money because candidates have more favorable television ad rates than outside groups.
That was evident in the Pennsylvania special election, where Lamb was able to match GOP groups in the number of ads on the airwaves even though those groups spent more on the race.
But, as Simms noted, Democrats didn’t win every special election where the underlying dynamics of the districts favored Republicans.
“What we’ve also seen this cycle is that having the most money and spending the most money doesn’t mean you’re going to win,” he said.