If you’re wondering if the Democrats can manage to take back the House and Senate in some of the most anticipated midterm elections in years, you should look to 2006. Back then, the Republican president’s approval rating was stuck around 40 percent, the House was seen as wallowing in corruption, and Democrats faced a similarly uphill climb in terms of the map (they needed to win 15 seats but there were only 16 Republicans in districts won by John Kerry in 2004, while this year Democrats need to win 23 seats while there are only 25 that were won by Hillary Clinton).
So when I saw Democrats touting that more than 40 of their candidates outraised incumbent challengers, I wondered, how much predictive power does raising more money than your opponent have? Let’s use 2006 as a model: That year, Democrats won 30 seats, and lost 31 more that were rated highly competitive by UVA’s Crystal Ball. After throwing out four races where either the incumbent or challenger dropped out after the first quarter (Florida’s 16th, Ohio’s 18th, Texas’s 22th, and Arizona’s First) as well as the seat where there had been a special election the week before the filing deadline (California’s 50th), you have 56 races—27 of which Democrats won. Such a small number isn’t statistically significant, but I do think it’s a helpful exercise to try and spot any patterns from such a similar political environment. So what predictive power did the first quarter fundraising reports have that year? Here’s what I found:
Outraising your opponent in the first quarter didn’t mean all that much. In 2006, 21 Democrats outraised their Republican challengers in Q1. Of those 21 races, Democrats won 13. Which means of the remaining 35 races, they won 17. Not a terribly predictive marker. Moreover, if you lower the threshold to Democrats who raised only 65 percent of their opponent the measure is similarly predictive. That’s an arbitrary cutoff but I think it speaks to the larger point around how outraising your opponent in Q1 doesn’t necessarily indicate a whole lot. It doesn’t matter if a Democrat outraises his or her opponent; all that matters is they don’t trail the Republican by an insurmountable amount. And with few touted Democrats in 2018 lagging that much behind their Republican counterparts, there aren’t too many races to be down on based on fundraising numbers.
Of course, candidates’ fundraising reports don’t just show how much they raised in the previous three months. They also show how much they have available for the rest of the campaign going forward (known to political nerds as cash on hand, or CoH). And wouldn’t you know it...
Having more cash on hand than your opponent was predictive. There were five races where Democrats had a decisive cash-on-hand advantage and three where the parties had functionally the same amount of money on hand in 2006. Democrats won the five with a decisive advantage and two of the three where the candidates were within 5 percent of each other. Using 2006 as a yardstick, it appears that cash on hand is a better predictor of success than amount raised. And if a Republican incumbent trails a challenger in cash on hand it’s a sign they may not be taking their re-election campaign seriously enough. I mean, how hard is it to stash away money when it’s your job to stick up for payday lenders, oil companies, and Nigerian princes?
Now, by my count there are 15 races where a Democrat has more cash on hand than a Republican incumbent, and 13 additional open seats where the top Democratic fundraiser has more than the top Republican. I’m not saying that Democrats will win seven-eighths of those seats, but there are some races on that list that are being overlooked by a lot of prognosticators. Of the 28, most are already being tracked closely by national parties and the media. But there are five that have fallen through the cracks and I think are underrated by House handicappers like the Crystal Ball, Inside Elections, and Cook Political. Here they are:
Democrat Leslie Cockburn: $300,000 CoH
Incumbent Republican Tom Garrett: $142,000 CoH
Cockburn doesn’t even have the most cash on hand of any Democrat running here—she has less than businessman RD Hufstetler. But Cockburn is all but assured of the nomination here as the Fifth opted for an undemocratic party convention instead of a primary open to all voters, and Cockburn has enough pledged delegates to win it on May 5.
Now Cockburn will face Tom Garrett, who like a lot of recently elected Republicans has never had to win a difficult general election before. Garrett is perhaps best known for posing with the organizers of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which happens to be in this district. So while some Democrats are worried that Cockburn’s history of criticizing Israel’s influence on America’s foreign policy will come back to haunt her, I’m not persuaded: The Jewish population in the district is small and even those who live there (a demographic that once included me) aren’t likely to turn on a Democrat who criticizes Israel in favor of a Republican who pals around with white supremacists.
New York’s 11th
Democrat Max Rose: $891,000 CoH
Incumbent Republican Dan Donovan: $739,000 CoH
Republican Michael Grimm: $332,000 CoH
Neither party is quite sure who their nominee will be next year. Dan Donovan exacerbated the problems he faced with a fractious local party when it broke that he allegedly helped his partner’s son avoid criminal charges for heroin possession. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Donovan is trailing his predecessor Michael Grimm in the only primary poll released to date.
Grimm just got out of prison for tax fraud, and once threatened to break a reporter in half “like a boy.” But Republicans seem to be willing to believe that any conservative prosecuted by the federal government from 2009-2016 was actually a political prisoner, and he’s made a play at being the pro-Trump candidate in the race. So don’t count him out in the primary.
And don’t count him out in the general either. Grimm was under indictment when he beat City Council Member Domenic Recchia by 13 points in 2014. Recchia was hamstrung by a gaffe-prone campaign, a Brooklyn address, and a bad Democratic year. Rose’s campaign, on the other hand, has been disciplined to date, he’s running from Staten Island (he didn’t grow up there, but neither did Grimm), and 2018 is shaping up to be far better for Democrats than 2014. He’s running against six other candidates in the primary, but none of them have emerged as the de facto anti-establishment standard-bearer. Unless one of them breaks from the pack, it’s hard to see how Rose isn’t the nominee.
Democrat Matt Morgan: $317,000 CoH
Republican incumbent Jack Bergman: $307,000 CoH
Democrat Dan Kohl: $842,000
Republican incumbent Glenn Grothman: $705,000
Democrat J.D. Scholten: $271,000
Republican incumbent Steve King: $76,000
I’m lumping these three districts together for a few reasons:
Democrats Not Named Hillary Clinton Can Win in These Districts. In 2008, Barack Obama won Wisconsin’s Sixth and Michigan’s First while only losing Iowa’s Fourth by 2 percent. And in the past year Democrats have run well ahead of Hillary Clinton’s margins in elections in every one of these districts. They all still lean Republican in even the best of conditions but…
Their Incumbents Are Weak. Steve King has been aping talking points from The Turner Diaries for decades, but he’s gotten worse since Trump is elected. Western Iowa is socially conservative, but I suspect a majority of them voted for King out of party loyalty and at the very least tune him out when he starts going on about how great European ethno-nationalists are. Maybe, just maybe, 2018 will be the year where they’re finally embarrassed enough to send him packing now that our big wet president has brought the ugliness of the far right so neatly into focus.
Glenn Grothman isn’t a wannabe brownshirt, he’s more a AM radio drive-time bilge pump. He represents a seat that historically sent a more moderate Republican to Congress, having only made it to Congress in what were terrible years for Wisconsin Democrats. So if a blue wave comes, he may not be able to keep his head above water.
While Jack Bergman isn’t as odious as King or Grothman, he’s only a freshman. Both King and Grothman have been able to build up goodwill (and electoral skill) through decades in public office, while Bergman’s relatively new to the endeavor. Freshmen congressmen should at least be able to raise money well, but he apparently can’t even do that.
And there’s a wildcard that could really impact the Iowa and Wisconsin races:
Retaliatory Tariffs Could Hit The Upper Midwest Hard. The Chinese have made noise about retaliatory tariffs on corn and soybeans. You know which states grow a ton of corn and soybeans? Iowa and Wisconsin! And if family farms get hit hard they could revolt against Republicans—during the late 80s farm crisis those two states voted for Mike Dukakis even as California, Connecticut and Maryland were voting for George H.W. Bush.
I’m not saying that Democrats will win all five of these seats. But I am saying that handicappers are underestimating Democrats’ chances in them. And that if you’re looking to fundraising reports to gauge candidate viability, you’re doing it wrong. Obviously a candidate without enough money to pay for staff and rent is at a severe disadvantage going into November. But the ability to raise more money than a Republican opponent isn’t a sign of automatic strength. It’s easy to use fundraising as a marker of viability because you can quantify it, but it’s also lazy and potentially misleading.
However, having more money to spend than a Republican opponent, especially an incumbent, shows that the Republican is perhaps not taking the race seriously enough, or might not have experience in running in tough races. One of the biggest incumbency advantages is the ability to bank money for potential future challenges—just ask Mick Mulvaney. So when a Democrat has more cash on hand it shows that the incumbent has been caught napping. And if a blue wave comes, expect it to wash out the laziest Republicans.
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Robert Wheel (a pseudonym) is an attorney who lives in New York. He tweets here , and his DMs are open.