Which Senate candidates are winning the money race?

Reading the tea leaves in the latest campaign fundraising reports.

February 2, 2024, 4:52 PM

Welcome to 538’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

tia.yang (Tia Yang, senior editor): The latest FEC deadline for campaign finance disclosures was Wednesday, giving us a look at how campaigns fared in the last quarter of 2023, about a year out from the 2024 elections. As we did for the first three quarters of the year, we’ll be discussing what these reports tell us about who’s in a strong position, who’s struggling and who might not be running at all.

We’ll touch on the presidential race later, but let’s start off with the Senate. Democrats once again dominated fundraising this quarter, not least because of big spending in Democratic primaries, with high-profile candidates squaring off to fill open seats in states like California and Michigan … and challenge a scandal-embroiled incumbent in New Jersey. And of course, the competition is already well underway in the general, where Democrats are in a tough position defending some of the most competitive seats that will determine the next Senate majority.

As usual, the National Journal Hotline has a handy roundup of how much each Senate candidate has raised. What were your biggest takeaways here?

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, senior elections analyst): I think the most-discussed Senate data point has been Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's anemic showing in the last three months of 2023. The Democrat-turned-independent raised only about $600,000 — which would amount to a strong quarter for a House candidate, but not so much for a Senate incumbent. So while she has $10.6 million in the bank, her slowing fundraising may point to a retirement. Meanwhile, her main opponents, Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego and Republican Kari Lake, raised $3.3 million and $2.1 million respectively.

Monica Potts (Monica Potts, senior politics reporter): Right, and she's running out of time to decide. As an independent, she would need to start gathering signatures to appear on the ballot, and reporting shows she hasn't done that yet.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior editor and elections analyst): You guys, I was going to say the exact same thing. I think that number from Sinema is a giant sign saying "I'm retiring." As Monica mentioned, she has to submit more than 40,000 signatures by April 8 to make the ballot, and while she could dip into that $10.6 million to collect them, the longer she waits to get started, the more expensive it's going to be. And the general election won't be a picnic either, with most polls showing her in only the teens in a three-way race against Gallego and Lake or another Republican candidate.

geoffrey.skelley: Essentially, Sinema is looking more and more like former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat who surprised the political world by retiring ahead of the 2010 election even though he had more than $10 million in the bank. He later mounted a comeback attempt with that war chest in 2016, but failed.

tia.yang: Sinema's likely retirement and Gallego's strong fundraising numbers are probably encouraging early news for Democrats, who have plenty of other seats to worry about without having to deal with a messy three-way race in Arizona.

nrakich: Speaking of which ... One of the most stunning numbers to me was far-right Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale raising just $98,073. He's reportedly planning to jump into the U.S. Senate race against Democratic Sen. Jon Tester soon, but numbers like that make me reconsider whether that’s true. Rosendale started the cycle as the presumed favorite to face Tester in November given his statewide name recognition, but he's going to have trouble beating former Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy, the preferred candidate of the GOP establishment, in the primary with that kind of cash. (Sheehy raised $2.5 million.)

geoffrey.skelley: Democrats would prefer Rosendale get into the race, considering he lost to Tester in 2018 before winning the state's then-lone House seat in 2020 (Rosendale now represents the eastern Montana-based 2nd Congressional District after the state gained a seat in reapportionment). An affiliate of the Senate Majority PAC, the top outside Democratic Senate group, has been running ads against Sheehy already with an eye toward weakening his standing.

nrakich: True, Rosendale will have "help" from Democrats in that primary. They meddled in several GOP primaries in 2022 in hopes of getting weaker candidates to run against in the general election, which generally worked out for them.

Monica Potts: Worth mentioning that Tester himself raised $5.5 million and is sitting on $11.2 million. He is getting ready for a tough race.

tia.yang: Yeah, Tester's fundraising looks pretty strong, especially given that Montana's smaller media markets will cost less to run ads in. His $5.5 million in contributions (excluding loans) is actually the third highest total among all Senate candidates.

nrakich: Were the top two both in California, haha?

tia.yang: One was! That was Rep. Adam Schiff, who’s in arguably one of the most competitive primaries this season. He's one of three sitting House members who've jumped into the race to fill the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein's seat (currently held by Laphonza Butler, who isn’t running in the fall). Any interesting takeaways from that race?

nrakich: Haha, I feel like we've said the same thing about that race in all of our fundraising chats. Schiff and Rep. Katie Porter are raising obscene amounts of money (that many Democrats probably feel would be better applied to an actual swing state). News at 11.

geoffrey.skelley: Schiff had an absurd $34.9 million in the bank at the end of the fourth quarter, more than twice as much as the next-closest Senate candidate (Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown). A large chunk of that is thanks to the money Schiff brought over from his House account. Nonetheless, California is a ridiculously expensive place to campaign statewide, though, so Schiff is best positioned to spend a ton between now and the March 5 top-two primary. He's led in most primary polling and raised more than twice as much as Porter last quarter, so it seems like he's in a very good position to make it to November. It's mainly a question of who he will face — a fellow Democrat like Porter or Rep. Barbara Lee, or perhaps Republican Steve Garvey. The former would be interesting, while the latter would be a snoozefest in safely blue California.

nrakich: Steve Garvey, the former Los Angeles Dodger and San Diego Padre!

Monica Potts: Who only raised about $600,000!

tia.yang: And that's only one of several races where Democrats are expending a lot of funds on primaries for safe or safe-ish seats.

nrakich: Yeah, another primary to watch will be in New Jersey, where state First Lady Tammy Murphy raised $3.2 million and Rep. Andy Kim raised $1.8 million. And that seat still technically has a Democratic incumbent, scandal-plagued Sen. Bob Menendez! He raised just $104,000, though (only $16,000 of which came from individual donors), so he's going to find it difficult to wage a real campaign.

geoffrey.skelley: I think it's safe to say Menendez isn't about to rise from the ashes. So the question is, can Murphy capitalize on her fundraising prowess and support from the party infrastructure, or can Kim win as something of an insurgent with far more small-dollar support? We'll see when New Jersey voters cast their primary ballots in June.

Monica Potts: The Michigan race is another one to watch. Democrats are slightly favored to keep the seat that Sen. Debbie Stabenow is leaving open in retiring. Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin raised more than $2.8 million. In comparison, Republican candidates Sandy Pensler and former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers have each raised about $1 million (Pensler almost entirely through self-funding). But at least it seems like Slotkin has her primary race locked down: Her Democratic opponents, businessman Nasser Beydoun and actor Hill Harper, reported raising only about $460,000 and $300,000, respectively.

nrakich: Yeah, Harper entered the race with a decent profile as an actor on the show "The Good Doctor." (Now in its farewell season, only on ABC™!) But his fundraising reports have kind of exposed him as a not-very-serious candidate.

geoffrey.skelley: The Michigan GOP primary is also very hard to read because it's so crowded and has such a motley crew of candidates. Pensler lost the 2018 Republican primary for this same Senate seat to now-Rep. John James, while Rogers comes from the pre-Trump-era GOP. Former Rep. Peter Meijer is trying to mount a comeback after getting taken out in his 2022 primary for voting to impeach former President Donald Trump. Then there's James Craig, a former Detroit police chief whose focus on “law and order” could make him appealing in a GOP primary, but he raised only about $60,000 and has already had a couple of top aides leave his campaign. There's even the possibility that former Rep. Justin Amash (who left the party at one point) might jump into the Republican contest, too.

Monica Potts: And the Michigan GOP is in such turmoil ... It'll be interesting to see what happens. But that's a whole other story.

tia.yang: Right, this seems to be a theme. A lot of these races are tough to evaluate at this point since Democratic incumbents are facing off against a still-winnowing GOP field. Even so, Q4 numbers looked pretty good for them. For example, the top incumbent fundraiser was Brown, who raised $6.6 million. That’s over eight times more than any of his Republican competitors, who are locked in a competitive primary.

nrakich: Oh(io), that's an interesting race too. The Buckeye State's primary is actually coming up quite soon, in just a month and a half! So it's crunch time for those Republican candidates. According to these reports, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and businessman Bernie Moreno are in the best position, having raised about $800,000 each last quarter. But former state Sen. Matt Dolan has $4.8 million cash on hand, more than the other two put together.

geoffrey.skelley: Both Dolan and Moreno are capable of self-funding, however, given their personal wealth (especially Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team). Moreno has also outspent the rest of the GOP field so far, and pivotally earned Trump's endorsement in December.

The incumbent Brown is going to have a tough race against any of those three candidates, but he might actually prefer Moreno, who has polled marginally worse against Brown than LaRose, a statewide officeholder, or Dolan, who is a far less Trumpy Republican. The caveat being it's pretty early for general election polls, of course.

nrakich: Lots of baseball connections in these 2024 primaries. You love to see it.

tia.yang: What about a football connection! Former NFL player Rep. Colin Allred put up big numbers in his bid to challenge Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas. Democrats are obviously hoping to mount challenges to Republican incumbents too, particularly in Texas and Florida — could they pose real challenges there?

nrakich: Smooth, Tia, smooth.

Allred outraised Cruz $4.8 million to $3.4 million, although Cruz knows from personal experience that he can win while being outraised (in 2018, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke raised a whopping $80 million for his campaign against Cruz). More notable to me is that Democratic state Sen. Roland Gutierrez raised just $433,000, a pitiful sum in a state as large as Texas. Polls indicate that Allred doesn't necessarily have the Democratic primary locked up, but it doesn't look like Gutierrez is going to have the resources to get his name out there anyway.

geoffrey.skelley: Considering Democrats have an almost certain loss coming in West Virginia after Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin announced his retirement, they have to hold onto Montana and Ohio to have a chance at even 50 seats in the Senate. If they want to maintain their outright majority, though, then they almost certainly have to flip either Texas or Florida. "Blexas" — Blue Texas — has long been a Democratic dream, but it's possible Florida remains more fundamentally competitive. Even though the state went quite red in the 2022 midterms, it's good to remember that midterm results are not a good predictor of presidential results two years later.

In the Florida race, it looks like former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell has effectively locked down the Democratic field, so she's already started focusing on Republican Sen. Rick Scott. She raised $2.1 million in the fourth quarter, although that was less than half the $4.7 million that Scott brought in. Scott can significantly self-fund, as he showed by giving himself about $3 million of that haul.

tia.yang: Well, we can’t leave without talking about the biggest race on the ballot. Q4 saw most major presidential candidates drop out of the race, but former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is fighting to keep her GOP primary campaign alive, as is Rep. Dean Phillips on the Democratic side. Do Haley and Phillips have any (financial) legs to stand on?

And how are front-runners Trump and President Joe Biden doing as they look ahead to an expected rematch in November?

nrakich: I am generally of the belief that presidential nominees will have access to functionally unlimited amounts of money for the general election. But I did think it was notable how much money Trump's leadership and super PACs spent on his ongoing legal fees: $50 million total throughout 2023. And that doesn't include the $83.3 million that a jury recently ordered Trump to pay writer E. Jean Carroll for defaming her. If Republicans do nominate Trump, they could be playing with a handicap.

Monica Potts: Yeah, I thought that was the big takeaway, Nathaniel. Especially since Trump technically still has a primary fight against Haley, who raised $17 million and has a super PAC in her corner that spent nearly all of the almost $69 million it raised last year.

geoffrey.skelley: Haley had a bit more than $14 million in the bank moving forward, and her campaign claimed to have raised around $4 million since the New Hampshire primary. That's a sign that she could continue not only to South Carolina on Feb. 24, but perhaps beyond. I remain skeptical that she'd carry on should she lose big in her home state, however, so there's still a good chance this ends up being the shortest presidential primary in modern history.

nrakich: I also thought this stat, flagged by NBC News, was interesting: "A sizable chunk of her fourth-quarter haul, 38%, came from donors who cannot contribute more money for the primary, since they already reached the maximum $3,300 contribution limit." It's not like Haley's campaign was going anywhere anyway, but that's the same type of financial unsustainability that doomed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis's campaign.

geoffrey.skelley: Great point, Nathaniel. Trump has gotten far more support from small-donor donors than Haley (or DeSantis), indicative of the larger intraparty splits we've seen in this race based on affluence, such as education level (Trump tends to win more among among voters without a four-year degree than among those with one).

As for Phillips, he's mostly self-funding his historical footnote bid against Biden — in the fourth quarter, he loaned $4 million to his campaign while raising roughly $1 million from donors. He is going to get crushed in South Carolina and isn't on the ballot in Nevada, so it's hard to say how much longer Phillips will carry on. Probably as long as the wealthy former gelato executive is willing to foot most of the bill.

tia.yang: Yeah, unlike Trump, Biden hasn't had to expend any serious money to fend off Phillips's challenge. While Trump was battling challengers (however long-shot they may be) throughout 2023, Biden's campaign is just starting to ramp up. Unsurprisingly, he spent more in Q4 than the rest of the year combined. He’s on relatively solid footing when it comes to fundraising, starting the quarter with roughly $5 million less in cash on hand than Trump but turning that around by the end of the year, when he reported having around $46 million cash on hand to Trump’s $33 million.

geoffrey.skelley: There've been notes about Biden not pulling in as much money as Trump had at the end of 2019. But as Nathaniel said, the major party nominees are going to have beaucoup money at their disposal, and given how much spending there is in presidential campaigns, keep in mind the diminishing returns on ad spending and the like. This isn't to say that money isn't important, but it's mainly a question of whether one side has notably more than the other. I guess Trump's personal legal situation could affect that across all affiliated campaign committees, but I also have a difficult time imagining Republican donors leaving their party's nominee out to dry.

Monica Potts: I think the biggest takeaway is that the campaigns will likely raise, and spend, gobs and gobs of money this year.

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