Are there any signs of life for Trump's challengers in the latest fundraising numbers?

Plus, what the reports say about key Senate races in 2024.

October 18, 2023, 11:27 AM

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

tia.yang (Tia Yang, editor/reporter): The latest campaign finance disclosures were due to the Federal Election Commission on Oct. 15, giving us a look at how campaigns have been doing financially from July through September.

We’ll dive into some key Senate races later, but let’s start with the GOP presidential primary. This is our first look at a full quarter of fundraising for many campaigns that launched sometime in the middle of Q2 … but many already show signs of slowing down as former President Donald Trump remains the overwhelming front-runner in polls and — as these numbers clearly show — also fundraising.

What are the main takeaways here for Trump and the rest of the field?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior editor and elections analyst): I think the main takeaway is that this is another data point — on top of the polls and endorsements — showing Trump’s commanding lead in the Republican primary. He raised $24.5 million in the third quarter, which was more than twice as much as any other Republican candidate.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, senior elections analyst): Yeah, there are just very few signs that the GOP presidential primary is going to be competitive. Nothing about these FEC reports changes that takeaway.

tia.yang: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is still in that second slot in polls and fundraising. He raised around $11 million to Trump’s $24.5 million, but continues to spend at a concerning rate.

geoffrey.skelley: And it's actually worse than it seems for DeSantis. He only has about $5 million in funds that can be used in the primary because the rest of his war chest (which totals a bit more than $12 million) can only be used for the general election.

tia.yang: Right, Trump has more than seven times the cash on hand as DeSantis for the primaries, with $36 million of his $37.5 million available.

nrakich: I have to issue a mea culpa on DeSantis. I thought his second-quarter fundraising numbers were quite impressive: $20.1 million raised in only 38 days, which would be the equivalent of $48.2 million over a full quarter. But that number relied heavily on big donations, which some people pointed out at the time was cause for concern, since donors are limited to giving a certain amount of money to campaigns every year (and therefore DeSantis wouldn’t be able to keep raising money from those people). And lo and behold, his fundraising this quarter was much lower.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, by comparison someone like former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley didn't raise as much ($8.2 million), but she had a lower burn rate and ended with $11.6 million in the bank, about $9 million of which is available for use in the primary — a much better number than what DeSantis has to work with.

tia.yang: Haley is vying for that second slot and got a bit of a boost after the last debate. Do you think she’s hurt by competing for some of the same donor base as her fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Tim Scott? Is anything looking up for her here?

geoffrey.skelley: Well, if you consider that Scott's campaign isn't really showing signs of life, I'd take that as another positive for her. The super PAC supporting Scott just canceled millions of dollars in ad buys this fall because it didn't want to "waste our money when the electorate isn't focused or ready for a Trump alternative."

Now, Haley has the same problem as Scott (and the other Republicans) in that the super PAC is exactly right in its read of things. But Scott is spending way more than he brought in, and his campaign is mostly relying on the money he transferred from his Senate campaign account. Some of his donors may look at Haley as a better alternative to take on Trump at this point.

nrakich: Scott was in a bit of a different, and unique, situation in that he had $22 million left over from his Senate campaign that he could use for the presidential race. That enabled him to spend $12.4 million in the third quarter — more than any other Republican candidate — and still have $13.3 million left in the bank, comparable to DeSantis and Haley. But based on the polls, he hasn't gotten much out of all that spending, and now he's burned through the one advantage he had over those two other Trump alternatives.

geoffrey.skelley: I think the Scott-Haley back-and-forth at the last debate was a signal about what's going on behind the scenes with those candidates — there can only be one by early 2024, and if Haley and Scott have about the same cash on hand at this point, Haley seems like a better bet to remain on the island.

Scott still needs one national poll at 4 percent to qualify for the early November debate in Miami. He's only had one national qualifying survey at 3 percent since the beginning of September, so this might actually be a major hurdle for his qualification chances.

tia.yang: Good point, Geoffrey. That third debate on Nov. 8 could serve as another winnowing event. Candidates need to hit 4 percent in at least two national polls (or one national poll plus two polls from separate early primary states) and 70,000 individual donors to make the cut. Which requirement is going to be tougher for these candidates to meet? Do you think we’ll see more candidates drop out before then?

nrakich: Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson definitely seems like he's a dead man walking. He didn't make the last debate, so I can't imagine he'll make this one, and he raised only $666,781 all quarter long. That would be a bad number for a Senate candidate.

geoffrey.skelley: Before the last debate, the main hangup was polling. This time, though, it might be a mixed bag that depends on the candidate. For instance, former Vice President Mike Pence has a load of national polls at 4 percent or better. But we haven't yet heard if he has 70,000 donors. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appears to have just enough polling support to qualify, but he’s still short of the donor mark. On the other hand, Scott appears to have the donors but needs some national polls to help him out. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum may face a similar problem, having barely received enough polling support to qualify for the last one.

tia.yang: Yeah, Burgum’s not looking good on either metric. He and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy both largely self-funded their campaigns, but Ramaswamy seems to have pulled in more small-dollar donors this time, raising a similar amount as he did the previous quarter. Contrast that with Burgum, who loaned more to his own campaign in Q2 than his total receipts in Q3.

geoffrey.skelley: Haha, well, Burgum is once again using a gift card scheme to generate enough donors to qualify. This time, he's offering gas cards for donations to his campaign, after promising donors who gave at least $1 a $20 gift card back in the summer.

nrakich: Agreed, Tia, I thought Burgum's haul was surprisingly low for a guy with an estimated net worth of more than $1 billion. He gave his own campaign only $2 million last quarter, after giving it $10 million in the previous quarter! That feels to me like he doesn't think his own campaign is a good investment. I don't think he'll drop out anytime soon, simply because he can afford to keep going as long as he wants to, but it kind of feels like his heart isn’t really in it.

tia.yang: To wrap up the presidential side of things, it seems like Pence has continued on a downward trend disproportionate to his polling numbers. Do you think he’s among the first headed out? What went wrong for him?

geoffrey.skelley: Who could have foreseen this? Oh right, me (and plenty of other people, for that matter). Pence was always going to have immense trouble in this primary because so many Republicans had a negative view of him after the events of Jan. 6 and the blame that Trump cast on him for Trump's defeat. Amazingly, Pence's favorability numbers have only worsened as the campaign has worn on, too. His campaign has been cooked from the start.

nrakich: Yeah, he's in dire straits. Other than Hutchinson, he had the lowest fundraising total: just $3.3 million. And he has just $1.2 million cash on hand — and $600,000 in debt. Even one of Pence's allies told Politico, “When he drops out he’s going to have to do debt-retirement fundraisers.” When he drops out!

geoffrey.skelley: OOF. Maybe Pence and Newt Gingrich can tag-team events to retire their collective presidential campaign debt. (Gingrich still owes $4.6 million from his 2012 bid!)

tia.yang: Oof, indeed. Let’s pivot to Congress, where Democrats are facing a tough battle trying to defend their narrow Senate majority in 2024. They currently hold all of the most competitive seats up for election (plus one held by former Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona). So far, it looks like Democrats have a leg up on fundraising in Senate races. Which numbers stood out to you here?

nrakich: The story in the Senate is Democrats continuing to put up boffo fundraising numbers. For example, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester outraised his most prominent Republican opponent so far, former Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy, $5.0 million to $2.9 million. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown also raised $5.8 million, which put him ahead of Republicans Bernie Moreno ($4.2 million, including $3 million in self-funding), Matt Dolan ($4.1 million, including $3 million in self-funding) and Frank LaRose ($1 million).

geoffrey.skelley: Tester has $13 million cash on hand, which I find amusing because, at a certain point, it's going to be hard to spend a lot of that money in Montana's nine small and relatively inexpensive television markets.

nrakich: Democrats even outraised Republicans in the two competitive seats with GOP incumbents: Texas and Florida. Rep. Colin Allred outraised Sen. Ted Cruz $4.7 million to $3.1 million, and former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell outraised Sen. Rick Scott $1.7 million to $1.6 million (though Scott is richer than God and can self-fund).

It's worth noting, though, that Democrats have posted great fundraising numbers throughout the Trump era and it hasn't always translated to victories.

geoffrey.skelley: To Nathaniel's point, Beto O'Rourke once raised an unreal $80 million in a midterm Senate race against Cruz in 2018, but he still lost. And with a presidential race at the top of the ticket, I suspect congressional campaign money, while still important, will have reduced value because of the focus on and down-ballot influence of that contest.

Campaign finance is one of those things where we know it matters, but the extent to which it matters is sometimes challenging to gauge. But campaign dollars likely matter somewhat more to challengers than incumbents, as the former are trying to build up name recognition while the latter are already better known.

nrakich: One thing I found curious, though, is how little was raised in West Virginia's Senate race. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin pulled in just $714,000, which won't dispel rumors that he's going to retire. But his two Republican opponents did even worse: Gov. Jim Justice raised just $613,000 despite being a multimillionaire. But Justice has lost a lot of money in the last few years and his companies are reportedly in a lot of debt, so he may not be able to self-fund his campaigns to the degree Republicans want. And Rep. Alex Mooney did even worse than Justice: $314,000 raised.

tia.yang: What about the now-independent Sinema, who’s in a similar boat as Manchin but also vying with a Democratic challenger, Rep. Ruben Gallego? What do her numbers tell us about whether she’s running?

geoffrey.skelley: Sinema raised about half of what she did in the second quarter of 2023 ($826,000 vs. $1.7 million), a slowdown that might signal she's not certain to run. Still, she has $10.8 million in the bank, twice what Gallego has. And given that we recently saw a Sinema campaign strategy memo laying out how she could win, I'm still inclined to think she'll run.

Her fundraising might say more about how she's maxed out larger donors while struggling to pull in small-dollar contributors than her plans to run, although if she's having trouble bringing in money, that could cause her to reconsider an independent run.

nrakich: Yeah, I interpreted her so-so quarter as "trying to run, but dealing with the realities of how hard it is to run as a third-party candidate."

tia.yang: Several of these contests also highlight the fact that some Democratic incumbents have been preparing to face a yet-unknown or even undeclared Republican. One advantage for Democrats playing defense is that challengers will have to get through primaries first. Republican Kari Lake, a 2022 gubernatorial candidate, jumped into Arizona’s primary just last week and already has the endorsement of Senate Republican Conference Chair John Barrasso.

Another race that comes to mind is Pennsylvania, where Democratic Sen. Bob Casey (who raised $3.2 million last quarter) will probably face hedge fund manager David McCormick, who filed his candidacy on Oct. 1. McCormick put over $14 million of his own money into a 2022 Senate primary run, losing a close race to celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz in what turned into the most expensive Senate race that year.

nrakich: Yes, and Wisconsin is another example. Republicans don't have a major candidate there; meanwhile, incumbent Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin raised $3.1 million last quarter and has built up a $6.9 million war chest.

geoffrey.skelley: It sounds like businessman Eric Hovde, who lost in the 2012 GOP primary for this same Wisconsin seat (Baldwin eventually won that race to become a senator), is a likely 2024 Republican candidate. Considering his personal wealth, he'd be another self-funder for Republicans, although I don't believe he has the same scale of bank account as the billionaire McCormick does in Pennsylvania.

nrakich: That has been a deliberate strategy by the National Republican Senatorial Committee: recruit self-funders who can neutralize Democrats' fundraising advantage. Moreno, Dolan, McCormick and Hovde would all qualify. A big question, though, especially after 2022, is whether they will even face those Democrats — or whether they will lose in the primary to Republicans less aligned with the establishment.