In Battle for State Legislatures, Democrats are Losing the Money Race

On April 15, 2020, the New York Times declared: “The Democrats Aren’t in Disarray.” With Bernie Sanders officially out of the running for the presidential nomination, Democrats had coalesced around a presidential nominee at the earliest point in the election cycle since 2004. And the good news would keep coming. Joe Biden posted his best fundraising month in March, outraising Trump. Quarterly fundraising reports from federal candidates showed vulnerable House incumbents with a sizeable cash advantage over their Republican challengers. And Senate challengers also posted strong fundraising numbers, in some cases even outraising the incumbents they’re challenging.

But no one is talking about the states, where Democrats are losing the state legislative money race – badly.

Right now, Republicans control 59 state legislative chambers, while Democrats control 39. This year, Democrats can flip the script and take back the majority in the states. EveryDistrict’s data work has identified as many as 13 chambers[1] that Democrats can flip this year, based on our analysis of the electoral competitiveness of legislative districts in those chambers.

But when we take a closer look at how Democrats are positioning to flip these chambers, a more challenging picture emerges around the financing for these campaigns. Overall, Democrats are losing the money race 2:1.

We’ve pulled the fundraising numbers for six states where filing deadlines have passed: Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Across these six states, Democrats need to flip 55 districts to win the majority. We’ve analyzed the fundraising data for these top 55 districts. Here’s what we found.

Across these districts, Democratic candidates have only raised half of what their Republican opponents have raised in aggregate. The average Democrat is trailing by $60,000 already, and Democrats have only raised more than their Republican foe in 22 of these 55 districts.[2] Democrats are also burning through money more quickly. As of the end of the last filing period in these states, Republican candidates had spent only 14% of the money that they had raised, while Democratic candidates had spent 40%. Most shockingly, perhaps, is how little money Democrats have raised in these must-win districts. The median Democrat has raised only $38,000. Across these 55 districts, Democrats only have $2 million in their bank accounts.

Though Democrats are meaningfully behind in percentage terms, the gap remains relatively small in absolute dollars. Democrats only need $3 million to level the field across all of these districts, and even small donors can make a big difference when many of these candidates will only raise $250,000-$500,000 in an entire campaign cycle.

This year’s elections will have far-reaching consequences. The 2020 legislatures will set the stage for redistricting, directly affecting the composition of the electoral landscape for the next decade. This November we have a historic opportunity in a presidential year to unseat Republican incumbents up and down the ballot.

To do that, however, we need to help our candidates win, and competitive financing is a major component of a successful race. Candidates’ ability to raise money can mean the difference between having paid or unpaid staff, running a full digital program versus a limited advertising spend, and ultimately between winning or losing. In 2018, EveryDistrict endorsed 62 candidates in competitive legislative districts. While our winning candidates were outraised by $20,000 on average, our losing candidates were outraised by $250,000 on average. We can’t let that happen again in 2020.

The good news is that while Democrats are behind in the money race, candidate recruitment has been strong. Each of these 55 districts has a Democratic candidate that can win, with the right support.

Amidst all of this, of course, is the uncertainty created by COVID-19. Not only have campaigns had to completely re-work operations, but campaigning, and fundraising in particular, has slowed as millions of Americans across the country have felt the direct impacts of the virus. Millions of people across the country are out of work and tens of thousands of people have become ill themselves. As the economy contracts, political donations have slowed, too.

More than ever, it is essential that those who are still in a fortunate position to have the capacity to give be strategic in how resources are allocated. Investing in these low-dollar, high-impact state legislative races can re-shape the direction of the country in this most critical moment. Democrats have a lot of ground to make up to ensure that candidates are in a position to win in every competitive district.

So, what can you do to make a difference right now? If you can give, we encourage you to give to the EveryDistrict “Top Ten” list, our list – updated weekly – of the ten candidates running to flip state legislative districts from red to blue that are most in need of your support this week. Click below to learn more about this week’s list and to make a donation.

[1] Arizona (both), Florida (House), Iowa (both), Michigan (House), Minnesota (Senate), North Carolina (both), Pennsylvania (both), Texas (House), and Wisconsin (House).

[2] In districts with primaries, we compare the top two fundraisers, one from each party.