Democratic Senate candidates entered the 2020 election season with dreams of taking back the Senate majority, buoyed by some of the largest campaign fundraising totals in history. They left with defeats in several key states and slim chances of gaining the majority, suggesting the inaccuracy of the popular notion that successful fundraising leads to successful election outcomes.
The single candidate who most defined this incredible growth in fundraising is Jamie Harrison, the Democratic candidate who attempted to unseat incumbent Lindsey Graham in traditionally Republican South Carolina. Harrison raised $57 million in the final fundraising quarter of 2020, breaking the record for most money raised in a single quarter by a Senate candidate. The previous record was set by Beto O’Rourke in 2018, who raised $38 million in one quarter in his unsuccessful attempt to unseat Texas Senator Ted Cruz. This brought Harrison up to about $109 million raised over the entire campaign, $24 million more than the previous record-holder, Republican Rick Scott in the 2018 Florida senate race. Graham also proved adept at fundraising, leading 2020 Republican Senate candidates in fundraising with $74 million.
Harrison was not the only Democratic candidate who raised tremendous amounts of money. Democratic candidates outspent their opponents in a majority of races across the county. Notable examples include Amy McGrath of Kentucky ($90 million), Mark Kelly of Arizona ($90 million), Sara Gideon of Maine ($69 million), Cal Cunningham of North Carolina ($47 million), Theresa Greenfield of Iowa ($47 million), and Steve Bullock of Montana ($43 million). While Republican fundraising numbers also went up, they only led Democrats in a handful of states, including John Cornyn of Texas ($31 million) and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee ($15 million).
These numbers were even more astounding relative to fundraising in years past. Only 9 candidates had raised more than $40 million dollars in the period between 2000 and 2018, with a third of those coming from 2018. 2020 had 11 candidates raise more than $40 million, with three additional candidates raising more than $35 million. This difference became even more pronounced in certain states: in Kentucky, McGrath’s $90 million was 15 times the amount raised by the Democratic challenger in 2016 and almost five times the amount raised in 2014. In South Carolina, Harrison’s $109 million was a jaw-dropping 1,350 times the amount raised by the Democratic challenger in 2016 and 218 times the amount raised in 2014.
There were several reasons why so much money was put into Senate races this year. On the Democratic side, the biggest contributor was ActBlue, the online fundraising platform. ActBlue allowed for the surge in small-dollar donations that has helped elevate Democratic candidates, even drawing admiration from Republican senators like Cornyn and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Some theorized that the accessibility of ActBlue has allowed for a rise in “fundraging”, or donations made due to feelings of anger or fear. These kinds of donations proliferated during emotionally charged events such as the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, immediately after which ActBlue reported raising $150 million. On a more fundamental level, however, this election was simply one of the most energized in a long time. This election saw record-breaking voter turnout, indicating that people were simply more engaged with the political process at-large.
These massive fundraising totals did not seem to tilt the election results towards the Democrats, however. While Democrats still have a chance at the Senate majority, they did not win many of the races predicted to be competitive. Graham defeated Harrison in South Carolina by about 10 points, while Majority Leader Mitch McConnell defeated McGrath in Kentucky by just under 20 points. Democrats also suffered losses in Maine, Iowa, North Carolina, and Montana. They are predicted to lose the race in Alaska, which has not been called yet. Democrat’s chances of gaining the Senate majority now hinge on Georgia, which has two January runoff elections.
There were reasons to believe that the accumulation of Democratic fundraising might not result in electoral victories. In the 2016 presidential election, for example, Hilary Clinton lost despite raising about $545 million more than Donald Trump. Similarly, although Beto O’Rourke raised about 175% more than his opponent Ted Cruz, he still lost the race for Texas senator. Journalists and political scientists have also shined doubts on the ultimate impact of money on elections.
There were concerns about the amounts of money being sent to certain candidates in long-shot races. Some of the fundraising efforts in these states likely stemmed from the base Democratic desire to see staunch Trump allies such as McConnell and Graham ousted from the Senate. This was likely a strategic misstep, given that Harrison and McGrath, the top two Democratic fundraisers, lost by 10% and 20% respectively. All in all, Democrat candidates for Senate raised about $300 million more than their Republican counterparts, but only obtained a net gain of one Senate seat on election night.
Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) provided what may be the most succinct analysis of this gap between fundraising and results, saying that Democrats “have a staggering ability to raise money and a stunning ability to waste it.” While it is too early to make conclusions about what exactly doomed the Democrats in certain races, it has become clear that their fundraising advantage did not translate to substantial electoral gains.