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From Progress to Power: How Democrats Regain the States in 2020 Part 2

Part 2- Outraised and Outmatched: Lessons from the States in 2018 Show Why Democrats Must Beat the GOP Fundraising Advantage in 2020

While 2018 brought major victories for Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives and several key gubernatorial races, the “blue wave” that Democrats rode to victory in these races did not make its way down to state legislative campaigns. Grassroots activists channeled much needed energy and essential support to Democrats running in often-overlooked districts, and this support resulted in a net gain of over 300 seats for Democrats in the states. But in the end, these efforts only put a small dent in curbing Republican power in the states. Today, Republicans still control 61 state legislative chambers while Democrats control 37.

On Monday, in Part 1, we showed where Democrats won and where they didn’t in 2018. In Part 2, we explain what made the difference in those successful cases. Today, you’ll hear directly from the candidates we supported in 2018, what challenges they faced, and what we need to do to provide candidates the support they need to win in 2020.

At EveryDistrict, we believe state legislatures matter — they hold significant promise to achieving a future of opportunity for all. In 2018, EveryDistrict supported 62 candidates across five states, helping 27 candidates successfully win seats in their state capitals.

To better understand our impact and reflect on opportunities for improvement, we developed a comprehensive evaluation process to understand why some of our endorsed candidates won and others lost, as well as to identify how to strengthen our model and service to campaigns in future cycles. We then developed and distributed a post-campaign exit questionnaire to endorsed campaigns.[1] We supplemented this analysis with elections and fundraising data for all of our candidates.

Here are the key takeaways from our findings:

1. Fundraising Matters: Democrats in both successful and unsuccessful races were outraised, but those who lost had less than half the funding of their GOP rivals.

Campaigns need resources to win successful races — and this is even more essential in the tight purple-to-pink districts where EveryDistrict operates. In 2018, on average, a Democratic or Republican campaign who won their election in a competitive seat in our five states raised $454,530. Successful Democrats raised an average of $23,330 less than their Republican opponent. The average EveryDistrict-endorsed candidate who won their election raised $463,320, just 5% less than their Republican rivals.

Democratic candidates who were endorsed by EveryDistrict but lost their election raised an average of just $207,580, and on average raised $240,180 less than their Republican opponent.

This lack of funding was true across all different categories of campaign revenue. GOP incumbents who beat their Democratic challengers started with an average cash-on-hand of $15,860, showing their advantage of rolling over donations from past cycles. During the race, Republican candidates raised two times as much cash and in-kind contributions as the Democratic contenders with much of the funding coming in from wealthy donor networks and outside interest groups. Interestingly, re-elected GOP incumbents on average also lent three times as much funds to their own campaigns as compared to their Democratic challengers, $6,760 to $1,700, showing how personal financial advantages of the candidates also likely played a role.

The severe fundraising gaps between Republican incumbents and their challengers show the uneven playing field that too many Democratic candidates faced and highlights an uphill climb that future EveryDistrict fundraising efforts need to match.

Figure 1. Democrats Were Significantly Outraised in the States in 2018

Source: EveryDistrict analysis of 62 target races in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania in the 2018 election. Average campaign revenues includes the initial cash-on-hand, cash and in-kind contributions, loans, and other income available on compiled campaign finance reports.

2. Successful Democratic campaigns, who raised on average $463,320, had more resources to lead extensive field operations to reach and to influence voters in their more moderate, suburban districts.

“We raised more money, our candidate hit more doors, we had a significantly larger field program (the Republican had none), we stuck to winning cross-party issues, and had the backing of strong political momentum.” –EveryDistrict candidate who won election

EveryDistrict-endorsed candidates who won their election were located in slightly bluer, more suburban districts, with an average LDI score of +1.2. These candidates credited their fundraising capabilities as one of the major factors contributing to their successful campaign.

Financial resources provided essential support to help successful campaigns invest in field operations, helping put boots on the ground to meet with, influence, and turn out voters. Candidates, staff, and volunteers at the average successful campaign knocked 32,000 doors, while unsuccessful campaigns knocked on only 24,000 doors (or 33% less), showing the impact that limited campaign resources can have on voter outreach and — consequently — turnout at the polls.

As part of EveryDistrict’s exit questionnaire, we asked candidates what factors they felt were significant in their race. Figure 2 below shows the results from our successful candidates. Successful candidates identified a strong field campaign and national political factors (i.e., the “wave” political climate that favored Democrats) as the two most important factors in their campaigns. This finding reinforces the centrality of effectively funding field programs for getting Democrats over the finish line.

Figure 2. Survey Results of Successful Campaigns: What factors influenced your candidate’s election?

Source: EveryDistrict survey of endorsed Democratic campaigns who won their elections in 2018 (N=14). Campaigns were asked whether the factor had a significant impact on the outcome of their race.

3. Unsuccessful campaigns, who raised just $207,580 on average, had fewer resources for field, messaging, staffing, and data to strategically influence voters in their more red and purple districts.

“I had a very limited amount of funding to use on this campaign. So, even if I had the best message to share, I still would have had a difficult time getting it to voters.” –EveryDistrict candidate who did not win their election

Campaigns who did not achieve the outcome they had hoped were more likely to be in redder, more rural districts, with an average LDI score of -2.6. These campaigns raised just $207,580, nearly half of what their GOP incumbents raised, putting them at a significant disadvantage. Unsurprisingly, with such difficult odds, 45% of unsuccessful candidates lost their races by over 10 points, despite being in winnable districts.

Candidates who were surveyed mentioned that a lack of funding was a primary reason that prevented their campaigns from running competitive races, with 90% of unsuccessful candidates saying their funding gaps meant they did not have the resources to lead proper field operations to connect with voters. In addition, 79% of unsuccessful candidates mentioned a lack of funding impacted their ability to hire experienced staff, particularly in races where Democrats have had limited historical presence.

Several unsuccessful campaigns mentioned that they had difficulty breaking through in their more conservative districts, particularly with divisive rhetoric by the national GOP leading up to Election Day on immigration and racial issues. Accordingly, 89% of unsuccessful candidates mentioned a lack of resources prevented their campaigns from developing a comprehensive communications strategy, limiting their ability to craft strategic messaging and to distribute it to voters via mailings and social media to combat the national message of the GOP. Similarly, 63% of unsuccessful candidates also said they could have used resources to better leverage data to make strategic decisions.

4. Gerrymandering and voting rights were barriers that had significant impact on losing candidates’ races.

Surveyed campaigns also highlighted the impact that electoral and voting policy decisions in their states — such as gerrymandering and voting rights — had on their chances at success. Nearly 90% of unsuccessful candidates highlighted their district boundaries as a factor in their loss, demonstrating the barriers candidates faced from the very start as a result of GOP efforts to draw districts to keep historic Democratic voters out of their pool of possible supporters. This feeling wasn’t imagined: in Ohio and Michigan, Democrats won the popular vote but didn’t take the chamber. Ohio State Senate Democrats won 52% of the vote and 24% of the seats, while Michigan State Senate Democrats won 51% of the votes and 42% of the seats. In 2020, Democrats will need new approaches and strategies to win in these more “pink” and “red” districts that Democrats must flip in order to win back chambers across the country.

Figure 3 below shows the results from our unsuccessful candidates on what factors they felt were significant in their loss. Unsuccessful candidates identified the voter base and district boundaries as the two most important factors in their campaigns, highlighting why sufficient resources for new strategies and messages are needed to overcome the structural disadvantages of these most critical districts. Without these districts, Democrats cannot win the majorities that they need.

Figure 3. Survey Results of Unsuccessful Campaigns: What factors influenced your candidate’s loss?

Source: EveryDistrict survey of endorsed Democratic campaigns who lost their elections in 2018 (N=19). Campaigns were asked whether the factor had a significant impact on the outcome of their race.

5. 2018 shows the importance of accelerating EveryDistrict’s model to bring better fundraising and data to Democrats in purple and red districts across America.

“EveryDistrict stepped up in a big way to help Democrats win in places they normally couldn’t.” –EveryDistrict-endorsed candidate

While the results of 2018 at the state level were mixed, we have the next year and a half to learn from the successes and failures of 2018 before the critical 2020 elections. Lessons from the cycle and from EveryDistrict’s involvement show the importance of new, innovative grassroots efforts to channel funding to campaigns who need it the most. By and large, EveryDistrict-endorsed candidates who were able to break the fundraising gap won their races, highlighting a gap that we must continue to fill in order to win more state legislative elections. Our support and the support of other grassroots groups is making an impact, and we must do all that we can to make it possible for more candidates to get the resources they need to run winning campaigns.

On Friday, we’ll lay out where Democrats need to win in 2020 to fundamentally alter the balance of power in the states. As the races in Virginia and Mississippi begin to heat up this year, and preparations for 2020 continue, sign up to get involved today by becoming a Fundraising Champion and help spread the word to your friends and neighbors. Now is the time to continue onwards in our mission to build Democratic power in the states.

[1] Of our 62 endorsed candidates, we received 34 responses, with nearly equal balance between successful and unsuccessful campaigns.