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Money wasn't everything this year, as well-funded Democrats fell short

Alexander Nazaryan
·National Correspondent
·7-min read

WASHINGTON — The comedian Will Rogers once said that American politics had “become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated.” Rogers, who died in 1935, did not get to see that pronouncement confirmed on Nov. 3, when high-profile Democratic Senate candidates who had raised record sums went down to defeat.

Efforts by anti-Trump groups of Republicans aimed at convincing conservatives to repudiate the president fell similarly short, as did efforts to expand a Democratic majority in the House. Even as Joe Biden was edging toward a narrow victory, many progressives will be left to wonder why their massive outlays did not produce the resounding victories they had hoped for and expected.

The fury Democrats felt toward President Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill, especially senators who had acquitted him in his impeachment trial and pushed through the confirmations of his nominees to the Supreme Court, powered a tidal wave of blue money for Biden and for down-ballot races around the country.

U.S. President Donald Trump takes the stage on election night in the East Room of the White House in the early morning hours of November 04, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Trump takes the stage on election night in the East Room of the White House. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Anger from the left was amplified by some prominent Republican defectors who produced a series of viral ads under the banner of the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump.

ActBlue, the progressive fundraising platform, raised $1.5 billion for Democratic candidates. “Small-dollar donors are showing an unparalleled commitment to change,” the group’s executive director told Politico.

That change never materialized, for reasons that will be endlessly scrutinized and debated in the months to come.

In some cases, the national attention to down-ballot races led to accusations that coastal Democrats were trying to exert improper influence, though Republican candidates are hardly inexpert at tapping diverse fundraising sources. But given Tuesday’s results, they appear to have done significantly more with significantly less.

“The top of the ticket always weighs heavily on down-ballot races, always have and always will,” one Republican operative told Yahoo News, “but Democrats ran cookie-cutter campaigns, [rather than] races tailored for each state.”

An operative who’d worked on Democratic campaigns noted that the path to an Electoral College win for Biden would run through the Upper Midwest, as opposed to states like Iowa and North Carolina, where Senate elections were being held.

“His victories took him through places where we didn’t have Senate races,” the Democratic operative said, adding that Arizona and Colorado appeared to be the exceptions.

Trump had no ally as conspicuous as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, whom Democrats made their top target. To dispatch him they chose Jaime Harrison, a former chair of the Democratic Party of South Carolina and a figure much liked by the Washington establishment. In October, Harrison’s campaign announced that he had raised $57 million since July 1, far more than any U.S. Senate campaign had ever raised before.

Jaime Harrison, a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, speaks during an election night party in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Micah Green/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Democratic Senate candidate Jaime Harrison at an election night party in Columbia, S.C. (Micah Green/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Things got so bad for Graham that he took regularly to Fox News, pleading for donations. He actually raised $28 million of his own, a quarterly record for a Republican senator. It just happened to be no record when compared with what Harrison managed to bring in.

In the end, Graham not only won but did so easily, defeating Harrison by 13 points. In his victory speech, Graham taunted “all of the liberals in California and New York” who had donated to his opponent. “You wasted a lot of money,” he said. “This is the worst return on investment in the history of American politics.”

A similar dynamic played out in many states where Democratic candidates who had been invariably described as having “shattered” previous fundraising records found that while victory without money is difficult, victory is not assured by money alone. A cadre of plausible candidates, recruited and groomed to wrest control of the Senate from a Republican Party that progressives relished in depicting as moribund, servile to Trump and beholden to special interests, took to the airwaves.

Donations flowed to the campaign of Theresa Greenfield, who Democrats hoped would unseat Joni Ernst, a Republican who has been close to Trump. Greenfield raised $28.7 million in the third quarter of the current calendar year, an Iowa record, yet met the same fate as Harrison. Iowans returned Ernst to Washington for six more years. Greenfield failed to come within 5 points.

A memorandum released to Ernst supporters on Wednesday morning described Greenfield as having been in the thrall of “New York Democrat Chuck Schumer and liberal coastal elites would do whatever it took financially to buy Iowa’s Senate seat,” while depicting the incumbent as “a closer” who “wins tough races.”

So it was in Texas, where two years earlier Democrats desperately hoped to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, another Trump loyalist despised by progressives. Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke did some “shattering” of his own that year, raising $38 million and inspiring a genuine movement before falling short by 3 points.

This time around, Democrats’ chosen candidate was M.J. Hegar, a young female military veteran, who challenged three-term Sen. John Cornyn in the state that Democrats seem always on the cusp of turning blue. In any ordinary year, Cornyn would have outraised and outspent the Democrat and won easily. But as a member of the Republican leadership in the Senate and an ally of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he could not escape the shadow of Trump.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Amy McGrath speaks during an Early Vote rally at Lynn Family Stadium on October 27, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
Democratic Senate candidate Amy McGrath at a rally in Louisville, Ky., on Oct. 27. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

In October, Hegar announced that she’d raised $14.2 million in the third quarter. Cornyn raised half that — and won by 10 points anyway. As for McConnell, he easily defeated Amy McGrath, also a military veteran, who had raised a total of $84.1 million in the effort to unseat the powerful Kentucky senator.

Democrats had been hoping to defeat Sen. Susan Collins of Maine ever since she cast her vote in favor of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. Her challenger, Sara Gideon, outraised Collins by $40 million but lost by 8 points. Cal Cunningham was no more successful in North Carolina, losing to incumbent Thom Tillis despite more than doubling him in fundraising.

The congressional map did offer some hope for Democrats, if not the broad change they sought. Republicans were defeated in Arizona and Colorado. In both cases, the victors were middle-aged white men — Mark Kelly and John Hickenlooper — who were known entities in their respective states. Kelly is an astronaut who is the husband of Gabby Giffords, a former House member who was the victim of an assassination attempt in 2011. Hickenlooper had been the popular two-term governor of Colorado.

The first live televised U.S. Senate debate Democratic former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper against Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner took place at Denver7 studio in Denver, Colorado on Friday. October 9, 2020. (Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at a debate in October against Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. (Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Does money, then, not make a difference? It was supposed to. Writing in July, CNN pollster Harry Enten mused that “you wouldn’t expect Democrats to be pulling in this type of dough if the national environment wasn’t in their favor.” Then again, there are only so many television ads to buy in a small market like Iowa. And in a state like South Carolina, where Republicans already outnumber Democrats, there are only so many persuadable potential voters amenable to an insurgent’s pitch, no matter how well crafted.

Fundraising failed to translate into Democratic votes in the House as well. On average, a Democratic candidate for a House seat had $1.4 million more to play with than their Republican competitor. That stoked Democrats’ hopes of adding to their advantage in the lower chamber by as many as 15 seats. Instead, they found themselves on the defensive across the country.

The returns on their investment on Biden are less certain at the moment. But donors had surely hoped for a higher yield, especially after putting $1.3 billion into the Biden campaign’s coffers in September alone. Even if he manages to win, that victory will not be the resounding triumph they had hoped for.

Nowhere was that more evident than in Florida, a state where victory has consistently eluded Democrats. They thought they had a legitimate chance this year, and relished in the prospect of winning in Trump’s adopted home. Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, spent $100 million to boost Biden’s chances there. But on Wednesday morning, Florida and its 29 electoral votes were as red as a sunburned tourist.

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