House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes typically steamrolls challengers when reelection time comes. The most any of his past opponents has raised during the 16 years he has represented part of the Central Valley was $400,000; some raised nothing at all.
Andrew Janz, Nunes’ current challenger, raised $4.3 million in three months, a staggering amount in a district that analysts had written off as a lock for Republicans.
As candidates around the country begin reporting fundraising totals for the third quarter — the deadline for all to report is Monday — even long-shot Democrats have been disclosing once-unheard-of sums. Republican lawmakers and their strategists have reacted with alarm.
The dollar totals illustrate how Democrats have extended lessons learned from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign two years ago, harnessing hundreds of thousands of energized small donors nationwide and innovations in digital fundraising to shatter fundraising records even as they swear off corporate and political action committee money.
That money won’t prove decisive in every race, of course. Nunes, for example, remains the favorite for reelection in his district, among the most conservative in the state, and has plenty of money in the bank. But he has a serious race on his hands, and others in the Republican Party are finding themselves eclipsed in fundraising by previously little-known Democratic opponents.
To the north of Nunes’ district, Josh Harder, the Democratic challenger to Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, announced he had raised more in the last quarter than any previous candidate in that district had scooped up through an entire campaign, $3.5 million. Most of it came in modest amounts. Harder has more than 128,000 donors.
In the state’s northeastern corner, Rep. Doug LaMalfa represents a sprawling district that Donald Trump won by 11 percentage points and that Democrats have long written off. His challenger, Audrey Denney, now has nearly $1 million in the bank after raising $550,000 in the last quarter. LaMalfa now may have a race on his hands.
In Texas, Republicans are growing so worried by the flood of small donations pouring into Democratic campaign accounts that GOP Sen. Ted Cruz routinely sounds the alarm in his stump speeches. His fundraising has been dwarfed by that of his opponent, Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
“He is out-raising our campaign dramatically,” Cruz warned recently at a rally in Lubbock. “We are getting flooded with millions coming from all over the country.”
Republican strategists worry the cash could put even some supposedly safe seats into play.
“Democrats are raising money hand over fist,” said one GOP consultant, speaking anonymously to avoid angering his clients. “You don’t see that in polls on which voters are showing interest in the campaign, but you’ll feel it down the stretch. It enables the Democrats to expand the playing field.”
American politics hasn’t previously seen this level of fundraising engagement from small donors. The amount of money pouring into the midterm election far exceeds what small donors invested in the 2016 presidential race, when they catapulted Sanders into contention for the Democratic nomination.
The money is going to candidates whom donors often know little about. But they trust the progressive groups raising the funds. The internet has allowed those groups to connect donors with candidates in a more efficient, less expensive manner than previous small-dollar fundraising that centered on direct-mail or email campaigns.
“They are making people feel like they can do something in response to Trump,” said Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics.
Liberal donors “look at a Congress that is so gerrymandered and hard to make change in, and they want someone to tell them how to use their pocketbook in a targeted way,” she said. “You are contributing to candidates who share your belief system, but you don’t have to do all the research to find out who these candidates are.”
The Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings have sparked huge online fundraising surges in recent weeks among both Democrats and Republicans.
A fundraising pitch that California Sen. Kamala Harris wrote on behalf of embattled Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who voted against confirming the justice, generated $400,000 for the North Dakotan in 24 hours, according to NBC News.
But in many cases, Democratic donors are giving in races where they are unfamiliar with either candidate. They are responding to pitches from groups like Swing Left, the tech-savvy progressive nonprofit formed after Trump’s election. They may live in a district that is already solidly Democrat and want to spread their dollars to districts where they have more impact.
The cash often gets sent with the simple tap of a button on the donor’s iPhone. On the liberal fundraising platform Act Blue, progressive donors can register their credit card numbers once and keep donating instantaneously over and over, as the text and email solicitations arrive.
The outpouring of money on the Democratic side has caused some prominent Republicans to respond with a slightly panicked tone.
“What is the real objective of this blue wave of campaign cash?” Newt Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker from Georgia, wrote on the Fox News website.
“With large sums of money, the Democrats are whitewashing their radical voting records — trying to dupe rational residents into voting for them. But make no mistake, these are modern-day Manchurian candidates — radical liberals backed by far-left extremists,” he declared.
Gingrich pointed to the Senate race in Texas, but he could have cited that state’s 21st Congressional District as well. The district, which stretches from San Antonio to Austin, has been represented for 30 years by Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, a prominent climate skeptic and chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee.
Smith is retiring, and in the quarter just ended, a political neophyte climate activist and former Army officer, Joseph Kopser, made clear he is no longer an also-ran by raising $930,000. His campaign boasts that means he has now raised more money than any candidate in the history of the district, including Smith.
“There is a lot of energy behind people who see this as a sleeper seat,” Kopser said. “There is no incumbent here banging on the doors of the [Republican Party] to say, ‘Save me.’ We are turning this into a tight race.”
Kopser, who is running against Cruz’s former chief of staff, Chip Roy, is one of half a dozen Democratic House candidates in Texas who have raised more than $1 million since entering the race. Most are in districts that nonpartisan political handicappers, such as the Cook Political Report, rate as favoring Republicans. Trump won Kopser’s district by 10 percentage points, and Democrats were not expected to be competitive there.
But the race ratings aren’t swaying small donors.
“These donors don’t care what the Cook Political Report says about a race,” said Carolyn Fiddler, communications director at Daily Kos, the online hub for progressive activists. “If they see a candidate they can get behind and believe in, they will give.”
One of the first examples of this kind of online activism on the left dates back a decade. Tea Party favorite Rep. Michele Bachmann’s public attack of Barack Obama in 2008 as “anti-American” enraged enough progressives to generate $1.3 million in online donations for her Democratic challenger within a week.
Bachmann still won the race, but the outpouring of money set a pattern, said David Karpf, a political scientist at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.
“That outrage led to the impulse for donors, and the infrastructure is now there to make it easy for them to give.”