Capitol Report: Why these midterms are unique — Democratic House challengers are outraising Republican incumbents

If the Democratic Party wins back control of the House of Representatives on Election Day, it won’t have been all about fundraising — but big bucks certainly will have helped.

The magnitude of spending by Democratic challengers stands out this year, because typically they’re outspent by incumbents who win relatively easily, according to Sarah Bryner, research director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-finance watchdog.

“We have a lot of cases where Democratic challengers are outraising Republican incumbents — which is really rare — in the House,” she said. The Senate looks more typical on the spending front in 2018, as a number races for seats in that chamber probably were going to be competitive and expensive all along, Bryner added.

In the race for Pennsylvania’s U.S. House seat that represents the central and southern parts of Philadelphia, Democratic candidate Scott Wallace has spent $11.8 million so far, significantly ahead of GOP incumbent Brian Fitzpatrick’s outlay of $2.8 million, according to the center’s data. In the contest to represent the House district that includes the northern suburbs of Austin, Texas, Democratic challenger M.J. Hegar has paid $3.7 million for ads and other campaign efforts to date, exceeding Republican incumbent John Carter’s spending total of $2.2 million. And in the high-profile Senate campaign in Texas, Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke’s $59.2 million in outlays beats out Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s $33.9 million.

The chart below shows the 15 congressional races this year with the biggest spending advantage for a challenger. Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who aims to oust Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson from his seat, takes the top spot, but O’Rourke is second, Hegar ranks 15th, and Democrats dominate the chart overall, taking 13 of the 15 spots.

Challengers in 2018 congressional races with the biggest spending advantages

Race Challenger Incumbent Challenger’s spending edge Polling data* Senate – Fla. Rick Scott (R) Bill Nelson (D) $41.2 million Incumbent up 1.9 points Senate – Texas Beto O’Rourke (D) Ted Cruz (R) $25.3 million Incumbent up 6.5 points Senate – N.J. Bob Hugin (R) Robert Menendez (D) $16.7 million Incumbent up 6.5 points House – Pa. 1st Dist. Scott Wallace (D) Brian Fitzpatrick (R) $9.0 million Incumbent up 2.5 points Senate – Nev. Jacky Rosen (D) Dean Heller (R) $8.3 million Incumbent up 2 points House – Ohio 12 Dist. Danny O’Connor (D) Troy Balderson (R) $4.4 million Challenger up 2.5 points House – N.Y.19th Dist. Antonio Delgado (D) John Faso (R) $4.0 million Challenger up 5 points House – Calif. 25th Dist. Katie Hill (D) Steve Knight (R) $3.9 million Incumbent up 4 points House – Calif. 48th Dist. Harley Rouda (D) Dana Rohrabacher (R) $3.8 million Incumbent up 2 points House – Va. 7th Dist. Abigail Spanberger (D) Dave Brat (R) $3.4 million Challenger up 1 point House – Calif. 10th Dist.  Josh Harder (D) Jeff Denham (R) $3.0 million Challenger up 1 point House – Mich. 8th Dist. Elissa Slotkin (D) Mike Bishop (R) $2.7 million Incumbent up 3 points House – N.J. 7th Dist. Tom Malinowski (D) Lance Leonard (R) $2.4 million Challenger up 8 points House – Ariz. 8th Dist. Hiral Tipirneni (D) Debbie Lesko (R) $2.3 million Incumbent up 5.2 points House – Texas 31st Dist. M.J. Hegar (D) John Carter (R) $2.2 million Incumbent up 15 points

Source: Center for Responsive Politics, MarketWatch

*Polling figures come from RealClearPolitics averages when an average is available. The N.Y. 19th Dist. and Calif. 10th Dist.’s come from Monmouth Univ. polls; the Calif. 25th Dist., Calif. 10th Dist., N.J. 7th Dist. and Texas 31st Dist.’s come from N.Y. Times/Siena polls; and Va. 7th Dist.’s figures come from a Christopher Newport Univ. poll.

When it comes to who has been leading in the polls, five Democratic challengers from the 15 races in the chart are enjoying advantages. But the GOP’s Fitzpatrick was up by 2.5 percentage points over Wallace in a RealClearPolitics average of polls, Republican Carter was enjoying a comfortable 15-point lead over Hegar in one recent survey, and Cruz was ahead of O’Rourke by 6.5 points in a RealClearPolitics average. And Democrat Nelson was up by 2.3 points on GOP challenger Scott in a RealClearPolitics average.

Democratic donors are expressing their frustration with President Donald Trump by giving to their party’s viable candidates, and what’s striking about these contributions is they’re often small amounts, as well as from out of state and from women, Bryner said. That’s as Trump himself has embraced the idea that the midterm election is a referendum on him, saying “I’m not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket.” Whether fueled by anti-Trump fervor or not, the Democratic giving won’t necessarily pay off with actual wins, as the polling leads for some GOP incumbents indicate.

“I would be hard pressed to say the money is going to make the difference, when it comes down to it,” Bryner warned. “You can’t buy demographics.” Texas, for example, is a red state, so all of the Democratic money being spent does not guarantee victory, the research director said.

In that same vein, political science professor Suzanne Robbins has emphasized that while money is necessary for a candidate to be competitive, it doesn’t ensure success. But having plenty of money to use does tend to matter more for challengers than incumbents, as “decades of political science research demonstrates that the more a challenger spends, the more likely he or she is to win,” the University of Florida professor wrote in a column published on the school’s website.

Candidates in tight races tend to end up with more money to spend because many donors want bang for their buck, said Michael Beckel, manager of research, investigations and policy analysis at Issue One. These contributors don’t want to waste money on a safe seat, said Beckel, whose nonprofit organization aims to reduce the role of money in politics.

“It’s all kind of circular,” said Bryner from the Center for Responsive Politics. “The money is going into races because they’re more competitive, which makes them more competitive.”

Overall, Democrats are enjoying a spending edge over Republicans in a midterm election for the first time in decades, as forecasters predict they will become the House’s majority party, even as the GOP appears on track extend their control of the Senate. The RealClearPolitics average of polls is consistent with Democrats picking up 26 seats in the House — more than the 23 needed to flip that chamber — and the Republicans adding a Senate seat.

Democratic candidates look set to spend more than $2.5 billion in the current election cycle thanks to unprecedented fundraising, while Republicans are on pace to shell out about $2.2 billion, according to projections from the Center for Responsive Politics. It’s a role reversal after Democrats lagged behind the GOP in spending in the past five midterm elections. That’s shown in the chart below, which is based on data from the center.

“Money is part of the equation that helps you run a competitive election,” said Issue One’s Beckel. While cash alone doesn’t guarantee success, because the quality of candidates and their campaigns matters as well, 2018 could be a good year for Democrats given “there are a lot of stars aligning,” he said.

With Democrats spending an estimated $2.5 billion, Republicans ponying up $2.2 billion, and about $460 million in outlays expected by third-party candidates, nonpartisan organizations and other groups, this year ought to deliver the most expensive midterm election ever by a wide margin, according to the center’s projections, which use figures that aren’t adjusted for inflation. The projected total spending of more than $5.2 billion would mark a whopping 35% rise over the 2014 midterm election’s outlay.

MarketWatch’s Katie Marriner contributed to this report.

Victor Reklaitis is MarketWatch’s Money Politics reporter and is based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @VicRek.

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