In 2018, House Democratic challengers put staggering fundraising totals on the board, a foreshadowing of the party taking over the chamber. Now, we’re seeing equally eye-popping money numbers for Democrats taking on Senate Republicans this year, a dynamic that may well change the makeup of Congress for the immediate future. As my wise National Journal colleague Josh Kraushaar wrote, at least eight non-incumbent Democratic Senate candidates topped $3 million in the second quarter, some of whom have, it would seem, fairly long-shot chances. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was outraised by a relative political newcomer. Welcome to the new world order.
Over the last four years, the work of Democratic activists and donors reminds me of a line in the World War II movie, Tora! Tora! Tora! As Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese admiral commanding the attack on Pearl Harbor at the outset of the war, watches his planes return to the aircraft carrier after the highly successful mission, he says: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.” While there is no record that Yamamoto actually said that, Donald Trump’s 2016 win certainly filled a Democratic Party that was fairly lethargic four years ago with plenty of resolve.
The money machine in American politics today is a curious blend of the old and the new. Some of the entities engaged in the partisan money wars have been around nearly forever; others are relatively new but major players in their own right. The Democratic National Committee traces its lineage to 1848 and the Republican National Committee to 1856. While the DNC and RNC have the longer heritage, they have long taken a backseat to the Democratic and Republican House and Senate campaign committees when it comes to downballot races. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee date back to 1866; the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee were both founded in 1916.
In their early years, the committees were pretty much incumbent-focused—and, some might say, effectively political laundromats, funneling campaign contributions to incumbents whether they were in political danger or not. Only in more modern history have they begun to support challengers, a quaint notion in today’s politics. Even many who have worked on the Hill for years don’t realize that both parties’ House and Senate campaign committees once (when I interned on the Hill in the early 1970s) had almost official status. They were literally housed in the House and Senate office buildings with phones on the Capitol’s 224 and 225 telephone exchanges. On the gubernatorial level, the Republican Governors Association dates to 1963 and the Democratic Governors Association only to the mid-1980s. Entities for other state-level races are still younger.
A more recent phenomenon is that of super PACs—political committees making independent expenditures on behalf of candidates, usually with 501(c)(4) tax-exempt affiliates established for each of the partisan quadrants. All are run by longtime veterans of campaigns on their respective sides and almost all are shadow campaign committees for their respective corners. The key difference is that the super PACs and sister tax-exempt affiliates have considerably more leeway in terms of how they raise, spend, and report their money than the semi-official committees.
The House Majority PAC promotes Democratic congressional candidates and is headed by former Hillary Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook. The Senate counterpart is Senate Majority PAC, run by J.B. Poersch, who was a former chief of staff to Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island before going on to serve as executive director of the DSCC in the 2006, 2008, and 2010 election cycles.
For Republicans, the House-focused Congressional Leadership Fund and the affiliated American Action Fund are headed by Dan Conston, who was a key staffer for close to a decade before taking over both operations last year from Corry Bliss, another veteran GOP operative. The Senate GOP super PAC is Senate Leadership Fund and the affiliated One Nation, run by Steven Law, who served as chief of staff to Mitch McConnell before going on to be chief legal officer and general counsel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and deputy secretary of Labor.
Distinct from the more Hill-oriented super PACs are those with a more national scope. Take Priorities USA, the mega-Democratic super PAC initially started to promote President Obama’s reelection and later Hillary Clinton’s 2016 effort, headed by former DSCC executive director Guy Cecil. He has managed more than his share of races and served as a Senate chief of staff. Priorities has become the de facto Joe Biden super PAC, although its aperture is considerably wider than just the presidential race.
America First Action is the pro-Donald Trump super PAC, begun soon after Trump took office by Nick Ayers, a former RGA executive director and chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence.
Some of the entrants into the money game are the online fundraising platforms. Democrats got out of the blocks first with ActBlue. Republicans had split efforts early on but established WinRed for their side last year. ActBlue processed less than $1 million in 2004, according to OpenSecrets, but as of last month, $1.6 billion had passed through this election cycle. The New York Times reported in April that almost $5 billion on behalf of Democratic candidates and progressive causes went through ActBlue over the last 16 years. Party activists can go shopping for candidates and causes that they might be interested in supporting and, with a couple of keystrokes, contribute money to them. ActBlue reportedly processed $60 million between the Friday and Monday after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer.
WinRed is rushing to catch up. Politico reports Republican candidates raised more than $275 million in the second quarter of this year via the platform, more than they brought in the past nine months combined.
With Republicans’ realization that there is a minimal chance of recovering the House majority they lost in 2018, we can expect to see fundraising for Senate Republicans increase enormously. McConnell and the pair of Senate Republican campaign entities may be the only ones who can stop Democrats from winning a trifecta this year: holding the House while capturing both the White House and a Senate majority. Expect to hear the word “firewall” a lot in the coming months.