Upstart head start: Some challengers better funded than incumbents

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, and her leading Democratic challenger, Mark Kelly, have raised a combined $50 million for the 2020 election, making them two of the top five Senate fundraisers in the nation. But in an unusual twist, the challenger has raised $12 million more than the incumbent. (Photos by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

TEMPE – The coronavirus had already made 2020 an unusual election year when campaign finance reports added another twist, showing challengers in some congressional races raising far more than the incumbents they hope to unseat.

Democratic hopeful Mark Kelly continued to lead all Senate candidates, bringing in $11 million in the first quarter of 2020 to bring his campaign total to $31.3 million, according to his latest Federal Election Commission filing.

The senator he’s targeting, Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, brought in $6.3 million in the quarter, raising her total to $19 million – good enough for fifth-highest among all Senate candidates, but still well below Kelly’s funds.

In the House, Rep. David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, raised $221,000 in the first quarter for a total of $1.1 million this campaign. But that trails Hiral Tipirneni, one of his Democratic rivals, who raised $507,000 this year for a total of $1.7 million. She had $1.2 million on hand as of March 31 compared to Schweikert’s $226,000 in the bank.

By contrast, four other House incumbents had fundraising advantages of at least $1 million each over their challengers. Two other incumbents with less than $1 million in contributions still had 10 times as much campaign cash as their challengers.

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Political analysts have a range of theories on why some challengers have raced ahead of the incumbents, from the effect of coronavirus on fundraising, to the president’s unpopularity to factors specific to each race.

One thing they can agree on is that while a fundraising deficit won’t help the incumbents, it’s not necessarily fatal to their re-election bids.

“McSally will still be as well-funded as Kelly in the end and as an incumbent she will be able to emphasize what she’s doing for Arizona” through media appearances, said Richard Herrera, a political science professor at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies.

But incumbency only goes so far, said Inside Elections editor Nathan Gonzales.

“The race isn’t over, but McSally and the Republicans have considerable work to do,” Gonzales said. He said it is “hard to envision a scenario in which she outraises, or even matches, Kelly’s fundraising in the last six months of the race.”

Capri Cafaro, an executive in residence at American University, said that while challengers and incumbents had successful fundraising in the first quarter, it will become “increasingly difficult to fundraise” this summer due to coronavirus.

That was echoed by Paul Bentz, senior vice president of research and strategy at HighGround, who said “everything that has happened this year … has harmed people’s income to make large-dollar donations.”

Bentz said candidates with smaller donor networks were able to turn to that base digitally, compared to candidates who rely on larger donations.

Jason Rose, an Arizona political consultant, believes much of the Democratic fundraising success can be attributed to anger with President Donald Trump.

Five-term Rep. David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, has several well-funded Democratic challengers, including one who has raised $600,000 more for her campaign than he has for his. (Photo by MacKinley Lutes-Adlhoch/Cronkite News)

“The motivation for giving against the president is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Rose said. “That is going to continue to be a motivation for so many Democratic donors.”

He said that while presidential races have previously had an impact on down-ballot campaigns, “you didn’t see the level of animus, and animus can drive people to open their pocketbooks that much more, and that’s what we’re seeing to some extent.”

Gonzales said that is likely to come into play in the Senate race, where he said McSally “can’t depend on President Trump to win Arizona and pull her across the finish line.”

“Fundamentally, McSally has to convince thousands of people in Maricopa County who voted against her in 2018 to vote for her in November,” he said.

An April poll by OH Predictive Insights showed Kelly with a 51% to 42% edge over McSally among likely Arizona voters. The poll, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, showed independent voters driving Kelly’s lead.

In the 6th District congressional race, Gonzales said the district still elects Republicans under most circumstances, “but Schweikert has a unique set of problems that gives Democrats a chance.”

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Among those problems are a changing district as well as a House Ethics Committee investigation that has dragged on for almost two years over whether Schweikert improperly used congressional office staff and resources to benefit his campaign.

Herrera said the race between Tipirneni and five-term House member Schweikert will be one of the most interesting to watch unfold in Arizona.

“Ordinarily you would think that Schweikert would be in really good shape because he’s the incumbent and he has been in office for a number of years,” Herrera said.

But Herrera said Schweikert is vulnerable because of the ethics probe that “can really work against him.” He also said that Tipirneni – who moved to the 6th District after unsuccessfully challenging GOP Rep. Debbie Lesko in the 8th District in 2018 – has gained campaigning experience that she didn’t have last time, and that she is likely to gain national support.

Lesko is one of two incumbents – along with Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott – who saw their fundraising leads shrink dramatically when would-be challengers made large loans to their campaigns, according to their latest FEC filings. Even though they filed with the FEC, however, neither of those self-funded candidates is listed on the primary ballot by the Arizona Secretary of State’s office.

Editors: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly stated the status of two candidates in grafs 25-26. Emily Robinson is not on the ballot and Jimmy Rodriguez withdrew from the race. The story here is correct, but clients who used earlier versions are asked to run the correction found here.

Emily Robinson, an independent who filed a campaign finance report in Gosar’s 4th District, loaned her campaign $240,000 in the last quarter of 2019, but did not file an FEC report this year. Jimmy Rodriguez, a would-be Republican candidate in Lesko’s 8th District, loaned his campaign $590,000 in the first quarter of this year, but has withdrawn from the race.

Bentz said that Arizona has a history of self-financed campaigns.

“It’s not a huge surprise for people to do that, especially if they think they’ve got a good idea and are willing to spend the money to jump in the race and do something with it,” he said.

Rose said that challengers may self-fund because they “simply can’t raise money or want to send the message that I’m not going to ask people for money unless I get money myself.”

As for gains in Democratic fundraising, both see it as a continuation of the party’s gains in 2018.

“There is a true belief, following a pretty sizable blue wave that we saw in 2018, that some seats that were previously thought unwinnable, could be won,” Bentz said.

Rose said that possibility is motivating Democratic donors.

“The political marketplace has a remarkable ability to smell blood in the water … when the other party sees an opportunity to capture a seat or pull an upset that was unexpected … people get excited about that and people want to give to making history,” he said.

McKenzie Sadeghi

Politics Reporter, Washington, D.C.

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