Until recently, Democrats had resigned themselves to a brutal result in November’s midterm elections, with soaring inflation, signs of an impending recession and dismal approval ratings for Joe Biden threatening to wipe out their razor-thin majority in Congress.
But now the party can see an unexpected glimmer of hope, at least in the Senate, where a roster of Republican candidates backed by Donald Trump is struggling to raise money in some of country’s most competitive races.
In four of the tightest contests — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona — Democratic candidates outraised their Republican counterparts to the tune of roughly $60mn in total in the first half of the year.
Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who conducts focus groups of the party’s voters, said the fundraising numbers reflected broader concerns about the candidates, in particular their decision to align themselves towards the extreme, pro-Trump wing of the party. At least two have echoed Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen.
“They’ve got these candidates that are kind of outside of the mainstream that I think are going to make what would be — in this difficult environment for Democrats — incredibly winnable [contests] now very competitive,” she said. “And it’s not just Senate races. It’s the governor’s races too.”
In Ohio, Democrat Tim Ryan, raised six times more in the first half of the year than his Republican competitor JD Vance, the Hillbilly Elegy author who latterly courted Trump’s endorsement and is backed financially by Peter Thiel.
In Pennsylvania, Democrat John Fetterman — who has been kept off the campaign trail for most of the past two months after suffering a stroke — raised four times his Republican opponent, the TV personality Mehmet Oz, in the first half of the year. Fetterman, who according to a RealClearPolitics average of polls leads Oz by 8.7 points, has tried to make up for his absence with an irreverent social media campaign drawing attention to the fact that his rival was until recently a resident of neighbouring New Jersey.
In Georgia, Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock has pulled in more than three times the amount raised by his opponent Herschel Walker, the former National Football League star, in the first six months of the year. Walker has been dogged by his call for a national abortion ban and the revelation that he had fathered previously undisclosed children.
And in Arizona, the Trump-endorsed Blake Masters’ fundraising continues to lag behind Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly, despite cash injections from Thiel. Masters, who won his primary on Tuesday night, has raised $7.9mn up to July 13 this year, while Kelly has pulled in $27.3mn.
Longwell noted that while Trump’s endorsement might be a hindrance in general election races, it was often a key factor in helping candidates win their party primaries.
“There’s a Maga establishment now,” she said, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. “You still can’t say the election was free and fair and be competitive in any of these [primary] races.”
With three months to go before the vote in November, there is still much that could turn the four Senate races back towards Republicans, including a deterioration in the economy and the failure to pass Biden-backed legislation.
But Democrats say other political forces are working in their favour, chief among them the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe vs Wade, the legal decision that has enshrined the constitutional right to an abortion for nearly 50 years.
In an ominous sign for Republican candidates, many of them anti-abortion, voters in Kansas this week resoundingly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have paved the way for state legislators to ban or restrict the procedure. The result, in a state that has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, suggested that pro-choice sentiment straddles the political divide and could galvanise voters ahead of the midterm.
“I think it was really an eye-opener for people,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. “It gave the road map for the 2022 elections . . . [and] showed that the number one decisive factor in terms of turning people out to vote in a close race could easily be abortion.”
However, Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist, said Republicans had historically polled poorly in the summer ahead of midterm elections that they ended up winning, as happened in 2014.
He played down the disparities in fundraising for the competitive Senate races as well as Republican candidates’ views on whether the 2020 election was fraudulent.
“I don’t think swing voters on either side are going to vote on what you think happened in the 2020 election . . . [they] very clearly care about inflation and the economy more than anything else,” said Surabian, who is working with the Vance campaign and a Super Political Action Committee supporting Masters.
But there are signs that the fundraising advantage enjoyed by Fetterman and others is being felt more broadly by the parties.
The Republican National Committee, National Republican Senatorial Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee had a slight fundraising edge over their Democratic counterparts in the first quarter, but the Democratic party committees erased that advantage in the second.
On the grassroots side, the fundraising gap between Democrats’ ActBlue and Republicans’ WinRed widened even further, with ActBlue receiving more than double the contributions of its Republican equivalent. Grassroots Democratic fundraising has been particularly strong in Pennsylvania, where contributions reached a record high of about $470,000 in one day at the end of June.
In this more promising environment, Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist, said more Democrats were slowly beginning to imagine a scenario where the US House of Representatives was also in play.
In Michigan this week, for instance, Peter Meijer, an incumbent Republican congressman, was ousted in a party primary by John Gibbs, a former Trump official who has repeated the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen.
“The Republicans have all these crazy candidates, reminding voters how extremist they are,” Rosenberg said. “All of these things together could remind the anti-Maga majority that voted in very large numbers in the last two elections . . . why they voted against the Republicans.”