Part 4: The Money Story: How Dollars will Define the States in 2020

It is an unfortunate reality of our politics that money matters. Without it, candidates cannot run the sort of professional campaign that will enable them to get their message out and win elections. So, it is no surprise that figuring out the money piece of state legislative elections in 2020 will be crucial to Democrats’ success. There are three things that Democrats will need to do collectively when it comes to money in the states in 2020. First, we need to raise $46 million to support the candidates running in the top 200 races. Second, we need to direct those resources to candidates, not just independent expenditures or caucus funds. Third, we need to get these dollars to candidates as early as possible so that they can begin running a professional, sophisticated campaign as early as possible.

Top Dollars: $46 Million

Now, some people may say—and they say to us rather frequently—is money really the problem? With so much money floating around politics these days, can it really be that state legislative campaigns just don’t have the resources they need? Yes. In 2018, EveryDistrict-endorsed candidates who won their races raised on average only $40,000 less than their Republican counterparts. EveryDistrict-endorsed candidates who lost raised on average $250,000 less than their Republican counterparts.

We saw this trend continue in Virginia in 2019. The candidates who flipped districts and won the majority in the legislature weren’t running shoestring operations. In these races, most candidates raised at least mid-six figures. They had at least one paid staff throughout the cycle—most had many more—and ran highly professionalized campaigns. These campaigns had the resources they needed to invest in voter outreach, and it paid off when we turned Virginia blue.

This past September, we released our Purple States Report that documents the districts that Democrats need to win to build power in 14 “purple” states across the country. In that report, we also looked at the costs to run a viable campaign in those states. Costs differ greatly from state to state. In Kansas, for example, a House campaign costs $20,000, on average, while a Senate campaign only reaches $40,000. In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, Senate campaigns routinely exceed $1 million. Based on our analysis of these state-by-state trends, Democrats “only” need to raise $46 million to support campaigns in these ”purple”  states. We say “only” because, when compared to the hundreds of millions being spent on the presidential campaigns, these costs are just a drop in the bucket. In the table below, we look at just how far the dollars raised by Democratic presidential campaigns would go toward funding the entire program for Democrats to win back crucial states.

Table. Presidential Primary Campaign Q1-Q4 2019 Fundraising vs. 2020 Funding Need for all Key State Legislative Races

The chart above takes a look at candidates raising money the “traditional” way (as in, raising money from donors and not self-funding) who made the debate stage in January. Four of the five candidates raised in 2019 alone what we need to fund the 200 most competitive state legislative campaigns this year. Sanders is getting close to having raised nearly double what we need. Of particular importance is that Sanders and Warren – the two most prolific fundraisers among this group—have raised their funds primarily from small-dollar donors. We can replicate this energy and specific dollar amount at the state level.

Then there’s Steyer and Bloomberg. For them, funding these critical state legislative races would be pocket change. Steyer has pledged to spend $100 million of his own money, while Bloomberg has said he is open to spending $1 billion of his own money, on their presidential races. With those same resources, they could remake the states and the country.

Get These Dollars to Candidates

The second key point about money—beyond needing more of it—is making sure it goes to the right place. It’s extremely important to make sure that dollars raised get to the candidates themselves. Let’s talk a little bit about how money is raised for state-level action. Dollars generally flow into candidate campaign accounts, state caucuses/coordinated campaigns, and into various forms of “independent expenditure” groups. All three form an important part of the funding strategy for ensuring that Democrats can win in November, but candidate resources are most pivotal for flipping chambers and most impactful for out-of-state donors. State caucus and coordinated campaigns support challenger state legislative candidates, but they also have responsibilities to incumbent legislators, in the case of the caucus, or races at other levels for the coordinated campaign. Independent expenditure programs are efforts that operate independently of campaigns to push Democratic messaging and contact voters. These programs can be effective at turning out low propensity Democrats or persuading certain voters.

However, the campaigns themselves form the heart of the effort to elect state legislators. They lead most of the voter contact, launch mail and digital programs, and can shape the local messaging and narrative.

These opportunities are especially pertinent in a presidential year, where the risk of “downballot dropoff” is a common phenomenon that requires resources get straight to candidates. We know voters are going to turn out for the presidential campaign in 2020, but if they haven’t heard from the state legislative campaign, many voters simply won’t cast a ballot in that election. State legislative campaigns need their own infrastructure to boost their name ID. Perhaps even more importantly, the issues that matter in a state legislative campaign aren’t going to be the exact same issues being talked about in the presidential race. State legislative candidates need to be able to fund their own, local messaging that will be most successful for their purple district.

Despite their centrality, we find that campaigns themselves are much less likely to receive support from national organizations than caucuses or independent expenditure campaigns. A big reason for this imbalance is campaign compliance. It is easier to work across multiple states by funding these efforts instead of the hundreds of individual campaigns that need to win, which each may have campaign finance limits that reduce how much a single organization can spend. Despite these challenges, we believe Democrats need to redouble their direct-to-candidate efforts in 2020.

Early Money is Critical

State legislative campaigns need money. We need it to get into candidate’s campaign accounts. And we need it early. The earlier the resources are in candidates’ hands, the earlier they can really begin to turn the idea of a campaign into the functioning small business that can win an election. Too often, we find that campaigns do not have assurance that they will meet the funding level they need until September or October. At that point, it is simply too late to deploy the sort of highly effective program needed to win over a purple, GOP-leaning district. If state legislative campaigns can be funded at a practical level by August, they can plan their final push and additional resources allow for deeper deployment of effective messaging. With the rise of digital communications, late money can still be used effectively with digital ads that can be launched the second the money is in. However, for the campaign to be able to successfully implement its plans, it needs the dollars as soon as possible.

EveryDistrict’s Strategy

There are three key elements of the money strategy for candidates in 2020. Democrats need to collectively raise the resources so that candidates have the resources that they need to do the basic “blocking and tackling” required of a campaign. These candidates need to be able to control those resources. The earlier the candidates have the money, the more successful the campaigns will be. At EveryDistrict, our strategy is designed to match these facts of the money landscape.

We are one of the only organizations that exclusively supports candidates through direct-to-candidate resources. We do this in a transparent way, providing slates of candidates across the country that individuals can contribute to, so that donors know exactly where their dollars are going. We closely monitor our candidates’ financial performance, so we help to direct resources to the winnable campaigns that most needed a donor’s dollars.

And this year, we are working hard to see if we can get dollars into candidates’ hands earlier. We’ll be launching our first round of endorsements in Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina starting next month, working to drive dollars directly to candidates. With those early resources, we can help candidates get a head start on their GOP opponents and make 2020 a transformative year for the future of the states and the country.