House Republicans sound fundraising alarm. What now?

Two kinds of candidates: ‘Those who raise money and losers’

Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn, shown at his 2018 campaign office in Mankato, Minn., says he raised $1 million last year for his 2020 reelection. Republican leaders are urging members to step up fundraising to keep pace with Democrats. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn, shown at his 2018 campaign office in Mankato, Minn., says he raised $1 million last year for his 2020 reelection. Republican leaders are urging members to step up fundraising to keep pace with Democrats. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 30, 2020 at 11:53am

Jim Hagedorn, a freshman Republican from Minnesota who says he raised $1 million last year, isn’t worried about fundraising.

“That’s pretty good for a rural district,” he said Tuesday outside the House chamber.

It used to be the kind of haul that made a candidate stand out. Not any more.

Hagedorn’s likely Democratic opponent, Iraq veteran Dan Feehan, has announced raising $785,000 in the last quarter of 2019 alone. Democrats are raising huge sums of money, outpacing GOP challengers and incumbents — so much so that House GOP leadership issued a stern warning to the conference this week: Step it up.

Republicans have long admitted that they’ve been slower than Democrats to adopt digital fundraising. Even though they now have what they’re touting as a technological equivalent to ActBlue, they can’t be expected to catch up overnight.

But for Republicans who saw 2018’s bloodbath up close, there are deeper concerns that incumbents may not realize that there’s a problem — and that, if not addressed soon, could jeopardize whatever chance they have to retake the House.

“We’re on pace with what our goal is to run a full campaign and get reelected,” said Hagedorn, whose 1st District race is rated Tilt Republican by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. Pressed on what his goal is, Hagedorn didn’t answer, and walked into the men’s room.

Alarm bells

Republicans are still raising money. The National Republican Congressional Committee raised $85 million in 2019, chairman Tom Emmer said earlier this month.

“It’s not as if we’re doing bad,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a former NRCC chairman. “We had our best off year we’ve ever had. This is more a matter of how well they’re doing, as opposed to us not doing well.”

But the NRCC isn’t operating in a vacuum. Their opponents at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have announced raising $125 million last year, and that’s money Republicans will have to contend with in races across the country.

“That trend will continue, by the way,” DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos told reporters Thursday morning. She said members in the DCCC’s Frontline program — 42 incumbents who are considered vulnerable —raised a combined $92 million last year for their own campaigns.

It’s often harder for members in the minority party — which the House GOP became in 2019 —to raise money in the minority, and that includes  committees, too. The NRCC has fewer members to pay dues than the DCCC does, which could be depressing their cash flow. Some top-raising members are also retiring and have slowed their aggressive fundraising.

On top of that, some members are wary of giving to the NRCC because they’re not confident the committee will come to their defense if they need it, one GOP operative involved in House races said. In 2018, the committee cut off help to even loyal dues-paying members, such as Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder, who lost.

But beyond committee fundraising, the bigger concern to leadership and GOP strategists is that individual members are not keeping pace. Republicans are on offense this cycle — they need a net gain of 18 seats to win back the House — which means their biggest focus is on challengers.

“We want to make sure our current members are taking care of their own business so we can spend all our money on offense,” said North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson, the finance chair of the NRCC.

Falling behind

So why aren’t incumbents keeping up?

After the House began formal impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, the GOP highlighted instances of contributions flooding some candidates and committees. That frenzy doesn’t seem to be trickling down widely to House members, however, unless the lawmaker is regularly on Fox News, the GOP operative said. New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, for example, raised $3.2 million after defending the president during the House impeachment inquiry.

“A lot of the money that would normally go to individual members and go to the NRCC is going directly to the president,” said Missouri Rep. Billy Long, who committed $118,000 to the NRCC on Tuesday because, he said, he’s optimistic about taking back the House with the president on the ballot.

Most members interviewed for this story said they’ve been encouraged by donor responses this year and think they can win back the House.

But not all donors share that optimism, which could be depressing House GOP fundraising, too.

“A lot of the energy is focused on keeping the Senate majority,” said GOP donor Dan Eberhart. Winning the House is seen as a tougher gambit, he said.

“Nobody believes in their heart that we’re within striking distance,” Eberhart added. That’s created a catch-22 for House GOP incumbents trying to raise money.

Republicans’ late adoption of nationalized digital fundraising has also held them back.

“Republican donors for a long time still wanted to get a letter or phone call, believe it or not,” said Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, another former NRCC chairman. “They wanted to write a check. They didn’t necessarily want to give online.”

That’s changed. WinRed is supposed to be the GOP’s answer to ActBlue, but the platform will take time to become mainstream. Even Stefanik was a skeptic of WinRed until recently.

But the technology is only part of the problem, said the GOP operative, who suggested some entrenched incumbents just aren’t willing to put in the time to raise money.

“If you’re an incumbent and you’re getting outraised, you should work a lot harder at fundraising or get your resume ready,” he said.

Can the gap close?

Republicans don’t expect they’ll be able to match Democratic fundraising this election cycle, but they are hoping to narrow the gap.

The NRCC’s finance team will continue to work with campaigns to help them use WinRed and stress the importance of fundraising calls.

“Call time is important but you gotta do events,” said Walden, who raked in lots of money as a chairman and then ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. From the time he got to Congress until he announced his retirement last year, he said he often did three events a day. “I figured if I could raise five grand at a breakfast, I was going to eat breakfast somewhere.”

Outside groups will also help even the playing field for Republicans.

“There’ll be a ton of private money spent,” said Cole, who’s optimistic about GOP chances in the 30 seats controlled by Democrats in districts that voted for Trump in 2016. Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, and its non-profit arm, American Action Network, raised a combined $68 million in 2019, the groups’ highest off-year fundraising haul.

In 2018, Feehan, the Minnesota Democrat, raised more than two-and-half times as much as Hagedorn and still lost the 1st District by half a point. Republican outside groups helped Hagedorn even the playing field somewhat by spending about $7.2 million in the race — compared to the $6.8 million from Democratic groups.

And money isn’t everything. In 2010, the NRCC’s independent expenditure arm, which spends money on races uncoordinated with the campaigns, was outspent by its Democratic counterpart, recalled Mike Shields, the IE director at the time. But Republicans still won control of the House by flipping many more seats than they need to flip this fall.

Outside groups pay higher rates for television ads, though, so their money is less efficient than a candidate’s own haul. That’s one big reason GOP leaders are sounding the alarm.

Georgia Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, one of several Republicans who committed more money to the NRCC after Tuesday’s meeting, said he thinks members of his conference got the message.

“Look, there are only two types of politicians,” Carter said Wednesday. “Those who raise money and losers.”