WASHINGTON — The Republican pathway for recapturing House control in next year's election charges straight through the districts of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, especially freshmen. Judging from early but formidable cash advantages those lawmakers have amassed, ousting them won't be easy.
Each of the 62 freshmen House Democrats has raised more money than their top opponent. The same is true for all 31 Democrats from districts President Donald Trump had won in 2016 and for all 39 Democrats who snatched Republican-held seats last November.
In nearly all cases it's not even close. While there's overlap among the categories, most of these Democrats’ war chests are multiples of what their leading challengers have garnered. That's testament to the historic ability of both parties’ incumbents to attract contributions and Democrats’ strategy of aggressively collecting money quickly to seize on the anti-Trump enthusiasm that fueled their House takeover last year .
“The more you can raise early on, the more you're going to be able to solidify your seat and show that it's not worth investments on behalf of Republicans” by GOP donors, said freshman Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif.
Hill has raised $1.3 million so far this year, more than triple the combined contributions reported by her four would-be Republican challengers. She was elected last year in a Southern California district Republicans had held since 1993.
Democrats control the House 235-197, with one independent and two vacancies. Republicans will need 218 seats for a majority.
Democrats’ money advantages reflect reports filed with the Federal Election Commission covering the first half of 2019, so plenty can change by Election Day. Many serious challengers haven't commenced their campaigns yet or have only recently started raising money, and many Republicans will eventually overtake their Democratic rivals.
In addition, by November 2020 many GOP candidates will be bolstered by the Republican Party's allied super PACs, political action committees that can spend unlimited funds. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the GOP super PAC that helps House candidates, unleashed $159 million in 2018 races, well above the $96 million by Democrats’ House Majority Fund.
“We haven't seen anything yet. Wait till the super PACs start dropping their bombs later in the cycle,” warned former New York Rep. Steve Israel, who once led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC, House Democrats’ election organization.
Republicans downplay the early money discrepancies but concede the numbers merit attention.
“It's a wake-up call to every Republican that you've got to be out there doing the work, making sure we beat the trend of money coming in” to Democrats, said Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill. Davis is a top Democratic target who was re-elected by less than 1 percentage point last November and faces a 2020 rematch against the well-financed Betsy Londrigan.
Even so, warning signs for the GOP are scattered around the country.
Democratic freshman Rep. Joe Cunningham, who squeaked into office in South Carolina's Trump-leaning Lowcountry coastal district, has raised nearly $1.3 million. That's more than quadruple his best-funded GOP opponent and double the top three Republicans’ contributions combined.
Also outstripping their top money-raising GOP challengers are five freshmen from districts Trump carried by a comfortable 10 percentage points or more: Reps. Jared Golden of Maine, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico and Anthony Brindisi and Max Rose of New York.
Freshman Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who defeated a GOP incumbent in November, has doubled the fundraising of Tom Kean Jr., a prized GOP recruit and son of a popular former governor by the same name. Sixteen freshmen Democrats ousted Republicans last year by a narrow 4 percentage points or less, and all but two of them have raised at least twice as much as their nearest GOP rival: Reps. Gil Cisneros of Southern California and Oklahoma's Horn.
Underscoring Democrats’ efforts to shore up vulnerable incumbents, 26 of the 62 Democratic freshmen have already raised $1 million or more. They're led by the nearly $2 million accumulated by the party's highest-profile newcomer, progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez , who has a safe New York City seat but seems likely to use some money to help others.
Also exceeding $1 million in receipts are 13 of the 31 Democrats who captured Trump-won districts, and 23 of the 39 Democrats who grabbed GOP seats.
One of those flush Democrats is freshman Rep. Josh Harder of California's Central Valley. He's raised more than $1.6 million, tripling his best-financed GOP challenger, Ted Howze, a large-animal veterinarian who ran unsuccessfully last year.
“We don't have to raise as much as him, but just enough to get our message out,” said Howze. He said he could need up to $6 million for his campaign. Harder spent more than $8 million to win in 2018.
The DCCC should further shore up Democrats. It disbursed $297 million helping candidates for 2018, exceeding the $201 million spent by its counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee. It's ahead in this year's money race as well.
In some areas, Republicans are already exhibiting fundraising chops.
Don Sedgwick, mayor of Laguna Hills, California, has raised an impressive $621,000, but that's a fraction of the $1.4 million collected by his intended target, freshman Democratic Rep. Katie Porter. Republican Young Kim, whom Cisneros narrowly defeated in 2018, is not far behind the $579,000 Cisneros has raised.
And while freshman Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., has raised nearly $1.2 million, the top four GOP contenders have raised $1.5 million combined. That suggests plenty of money may be available for the eventual Republican nominee.