Politics

Have Democrats Broken Their Money Curse?

Funding expensive, unwinnable races is so last cycle.

A photo illustration of a donkey, representing the Democrats, surrounded by dollar bills.
$$$ Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by ABDESIGN/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Sally Jane Photographic Art/Moment.

As of early October, Republican independent expenditure groups were outspending Democrats in the top nine Senate races by a cool $81 million. For Democrats, who have allowed themselves to hope the party might pick up additional Senate seats in this cycle, the prospect of being outspent by the GOP is not a happy one. Some Democratic strategists have started sounding the alarm.

But it might not be a portent of November doom.

For the first election cycle in recent years, Democrats are not spending big, but they are spending smarter. More specifically, they have broken out of their fixation on lavishing money on no-shot candidates in ruby red states. Funding these starry-eyed, extravagant races was a defining blunder in their misbegotten 2020 strategy.

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Now, neither the Senate Majority PAC nor the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee—the Democrats’ two major independent expenditure groups in the Senate—are chasing likely losers with huge money.

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For example, they’ve abstained from going big on Florida candidate Val Demings, where the emotional allure of knocking out Republican Marco Rubio far exceeds the likelihood of actually picking up a seat in a state where Democrats are in shambles. They’ve also, until just recently, shied away from sending substantial funding to North Carolina, where polling says Democrat Cheri Beasley is neck and neck with Republican Ted Budd, but where Democrats haven’t won a statewide federal race in 14 years and the party is similarly weak. (Operatives were clamoring for money in that race in the pages of Politico; the $4 million the Senate Majority PAC announced last week is not an exorbitant figure).

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Just two years ago, this strategy would have been unthinkable.

In 2020, 35 Senate seats were up for election, and Democrats outspent Republicans in 22 of them. The money advantage was gigantic: Democrats spent $280 million more than Republicans did across those 35 races.

But it did not translate to success. Of the 22 races where Dems outspent Republicans, they managed to lose nine of them. Many were not even close. Before winning in the Georgia runoffs, the party spent the most money ever in a Senate cycle—to flip all of one seat.

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Before the 2020 ballots were even counted, Democratic Kentucky Senate hopeful Amy McGrath, with her $75 million campaign to unseat Mitch McConnell, was already a parable of Democratic profligacy: All of that money, and still, it was the worst Democratic performance in a Kentucky Senate race since 2002. (Overzealous out-of-state donors were partly to blame.)

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But Democratic Party leadership, in its official Senate campaign apparatus, was also engaged in plenty of profligacy of its own, in places like South Carolina and Iowa. In the Palmetto State, Democrat Jaime Harrison raised $109 million in a no-shot bid to take down Republican Lindsey Graham and still managed to lose by more than 10 points. Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer then compounded the issue by dumping another $6.5 million in independent expenditures, through the Senate Majority PAC, into outside ad spending in South Carolina. The DSCC threw in seven figures as well. Those purchases were locked in a losing race in late September of 2020 while a number of more competitive races were still up for grabs.

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Worse yet—though it garnered less attention at the time—was the spending on Iowa Democrat Theresa Greenfield. Greenfield also had a fundraising advantage over her opponent, Republican incumbent Joni Ernst: $47 million, huge money for a small state with a cheap media market. It was more than double what Ernst was spending.

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The Senate Majority PAC then poured another $42 million into the race in independent expenditures, making Greenfield’s race the single biggest outlay of critical resources from the organization. Greenfield was also the single top recipient of money from the DSCC, which dumped in another $27 million.

It was, to put it frankly, absurd. There was no way to parse recent Democratic performance in Iowa in any way to make a triumph look likely. Unlike in the red states of Kansas or Montana, or reddish North Carolina, Democrats had not won a major statewide race in Iowa, gubernatorial or senatorial, in years. Hillary Clinton lost the state in 2016 by 10 points.

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Greenfield, meanwhile, was a uniquely terrible candidate. A wealthy real estate developer, she had never won any elected office at any level. She announced a run for a House seat in Iowa’s 3rd District in 2018—and got herself on a Time magazine cover—but withdrew from the race after her campaign got popped for forging some of the 1,790 signatures needed to get on the ballot. That was revealed a full 24 hours before the filing deadline, giving her a day to make up the difference, but she was unable to sign up even 1,500 supporters in time and dropped out. Still, Schumer recruited her to run for the Senate, then flowed $69 million of discretionary (and unnecessary) funding her way—$69 million!

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Democratic coffers aren’t as full this time around, which no doubt has played a role in the decision making. And there is plenty of spending yet to come.

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But, in 2022, there is every indication that the party is actually considering candidate quality and recent Democratic performance before cutting checks, a huge departure from the last election cycle. (That, of course, only goes for the Democrats they are funding: On the House side, the new Democratic strategy was to boost far-right candidates in Republican primaries as a way of making Republicans less electable in the general. That also seems to be paying dividends, but it remains to be seen.)

If anything, the Democratic Senate campaign machine is now being too cautious on winnable races. The national spending on Pennsylvania Senate hopeful John Fetterman has only just started—as of late September, the DSCC had spent $0 on that race, though money is probably on the way. The party is also pinching pennies on Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin, a not terribly strong candidate who nevertheless won statewide election as lieutenant governor in a state Biden also won outright. Ohio has been an unfavorable place for Democrats on the presidential level in recent years, but the state does already have one Democratic senator in Sherrod Brown, who was reelected in 2018. This election cycle, Democrat Tim Ryan is running a good campaign against an unfavorable Republican opponent in J.D. Vance. The DSCC and Senate Majority PAC would do well to spend more in those races. (Top Democratic fundraisers, including Tim Persico, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, took to the Washington Post just days ago to scare more money out of donors, saying it is needed to win in November.)

This year, it’s the Republicans who have thrown money at a crop of uniquely unimpressive aspirants—in a tidy reversal, Herschel Walker, Dr. Oz, and Blake Masters have all become expensive underperformers. In the House, too, Republicans are being forced to spend more on weak, extremist candidates without general election appeal.

Democrats may have pioneered new heights last cycle in making an advantage in fundraising meaningless, but this time, they are doing more with less.

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