“Last cycle, there were a lot of people talking about this massive Democratic online fundraising as if it was somewhat of an aberration," said Cam Savage, a veteran GOP operative. "I think it’s the new normal.”
The GOP is struggling to adapt to a changing landscape; it can no longer dismiss the strong fundraising as an anomaly when it has remained steady throughout the first three quarters of 2019. And while operatives insist the disparity is not insurmountable, Democrats have undoubtedly amassed a head start in a battle that will be waged in suburban districts that lie in the most expensive media markets in the country.
For comparison, only nine of the 30 Republican incumbents who lost reelection last November had more than $1 million in the bank after the third quarter of 2017.
Still, top Republican strategists remain undaunted, citing the potential for an impeachment backlash to motivate voters and lessen the potency of their opponents’ cash advantage. They acknowledged the Democratic cash influx may continue but brushed aside concerns it would derail their shot at taking back the House.
“Their base is fired up, and ActBlue has done a brilliant job. But I think we’re going to close that gap,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman. “People know it’s going to be a very consequential election so there’s going to be plenty of money moved behind our challengers.”
Republican prospects now look brighter in places like Pennsylvania’s 7th District where Democratic Rep. Susan Wild has a wealthy challenger and less than $650,000 in the bank, and in California’s 21st District where Rep. TJ Cox was outraised in the third quarter by former GOP Rep. David Valadao, who is back for a rematch after losing narrowly last year.
But the latest reports also bring some warning signs for House Republicans. In several other swing districts, Democrats are gaining a financial edge that could become prohibitive. Privately, some GOP operatives concede it may not be worth the investment to go after certain freshmen with massive war chests who hold seats in pricey media markets where President Donald Trump is not popular.
Incumbents such as Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), who is sitting on $2 million in the Los Angeles media market, and Sean Casten (D-Ill.), who has $1.4 million at his disposal in the Chicago area, may become less appealing targets because of the cost of attacking them on the airwaves. Both have at least $1.2 million more on hand than their challengers.
"A lot of them are again building up such strong races that it's possible they won’t get a competitive candidate," said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), a leader of the New Democrat Coalition. "We can take them off the playing field."
Republicans have been working quickly to launch WinRed, their online donor portal, which raised $30 million last quarter. But operatives admit it could take years or even cycles before it can match ActBlue, which funneled $297 million to Democratic candidates in the third quarter.
Cash-flush bank accounts mean Democrats will have the resources to drive messaging on the impeachment inquiry, if needed. Republicans have signaled they plan to paint Democrats as obsessed with impeaching the president at the expense of scoring legislative wins for their constituents.
"The key thing is to make sure that the candidates are able to get their voices out, and voters can hear what our incumbents are saying and understand the work that they're doing on their communities' behalf," said Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), a chairman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Frontline program for its most vulnerable members.
In addition to protecting their new majority, Democrats are also building cash reserves to pad their seat count. Ten GOP incumbents were outraised by their Democratic challengers, including some of Democrats' 2020 offensive targets like Reps. David Schweikert of Arizona, Vern Buchanan of Florida, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington and Chip Roy of Texas, who faces 2014 gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis.
Democratic candidates also have cash-on-hand advantages in competitive open-seat races in Texas, Iowa and Indiana. In the race for retiring Rep. Will Hurd's seat in West Texas, Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones raised $1 million last quarter. No Republican candidate cleared $200,000.
Another wrinkle for Republicans: Some of their best pickup opportunities have messy and late primaries that could sap resources. A crowded GOP field in a coastal South Carolina coast that Trump carried by 13 points won't be winnowed until June. And in Oklahoma's 5th District, widely viewed as Democrats' most vulnerable seat, a nominee may not emerge until after the August runoff.
But Republicans are confident Trump will be a boon on the ticket in the 31 Democratic-held seats he carried in 2016, and that Democrats' move toward impeachment will motivate the GOP base in a way that could be more effective than TV ads.
"If they have the wrong positions for their districts, money can’t save them," said Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), who led the National Republican Congressional Committee last cycle when his party lost 40 seats.
There were some encouraging signs for the GOP in the reports. Some of their more vulnerable incumbents had strong quarters. Reps. Rodney Davis of Illinois raised $540,000; Ann Wagner of Missouri raised $480,0000; and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania raised over $400,000.
And some 15 Republican challengers in battleground seats brought in over $400,000 last quarter, including Claire Chase in New Mexico, Wesley Hunt and Genevieve Collins in Texas and Valadao in California’s Central Valley.
Some of their recruits are well-connected and have the ability to tap into large donor pools. Chase, for example, married into a family that founded a major New Mexico oil and natural gas company. Hunt has lucrative connections through his work for Perry Homes, a prominent homebuilding company in Texas.
Other Republicans have the capacity to self-fund: David Richter, who is running against Rep. Jeff Van Drew in South Jersey, is the former CEO of an international construction firm; Lisa Scheller, who is challenging Wild in Pennsylvania, runs a global manufacturing company; and two of the top challengers in an open suburban Georgia seat have given sizable loans to their campaigns.