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Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee have raised more than $300 million this year for his reelection — more than any other sitting president in history at this point in the campaign.
Trump has nearly twice as much cash on hand — $158 million, between his campaign account and the RNC — as Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee had at this time in his successful re-election run.
Already this year, Trump’s campaign operation has spent close to $23 million on TV and digital advertising, more than 10 times the amount that the lone major Democratic super PAC spending against him, Priorities USA, has laid out so far in its online-only spending campaign.
Democrats are growing increasingly alarmed by the spending chasm between the two sides — and its implications for the general election.
“The resources he has will be put to work anywhere and everywhere that he feels like he can scare up electoral votes, and Democrats will never catch up. It’s just too much money,” said Chris Lippincott, a Texas-based Democratic strategist who ran a super PAC opposing Sen. Ted Cruz last year. “That’s real trouble … I’m not here to curse the dark, but it’s dark.”
And the situation stands to get worse.
Since the start of the year, Trump’s campaign operation has run an expensive, far-reaching effort to find new small-dollar donors that is already beginning to pay dividends. The campaign netted 313,000 new donors between July and the end of September, according to numbers provided by the RNC, after spending $4.2 million in advertising on Facebook over the last 90 days.
Democrats, meanwhile, are still four or five months away — at the earliest — from settling on a nominee.
“We don’t know if the Democratic candidate is going to be able to even compete with such a shorter timeline, even if they have significant resources after the convention,” said Tara McGowan, founder and chief executive officer of the progressive group ACRONYM.
With the Democratic primary in full swing, McGowan said, “There’s two separate elections going on, and the really unfortunate part is Trump is the only one involved in the general election today.”
The spending disparity could have wide-ranging consequences in the battle to defeat the president. Trump’s money is currently allowing him, through social media, to reach more potential donors in the run-up to 2020. And his war chest eventually could enable him to expand the electoral map into states such as Minnesota and Nevada, where Trump and the Nevada Republican Party are opening a headquarters on Tuesday. Democrats might also be limited in their own efforts to stretch the map in places such as Arizona, Georgia, and even Texas.
There is one area in which Democrats are not collectively sucking wind. Together, the party’s massive field of Democratic presidential candidates has out-raised Trump and the RNC. But that money is working at cross-purposes in a competitive primary. And the two candidates leading in the polls have given cause for concern about their fundraising in a general election.
Joe Biden, despite placing an emphasis on large-dollar fundraising, saw his numbers fall off in the third quarter, ending September with just $9 million on hand. Elizabeth Warren, whose own financial condition is healthier — she holds nearly $26 million — recently pledged to forego big-money fundraisers not only in the primary, but if she becomes the nominee.
Mark Longabaugh, a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign, said Democrats’ potential fundraising imbalance with Trump “could be a huge challenge.”
“Trump and the Republicans are bankrolling an enormous amount of money, and they have no competitive primary, or very little of one,” he said. “I think it could be a struggle.”
But Longabaugh predicts the nomination will be settled “fairly quickly … pretty well done by the end of March,” in which case he said Democrats are “going to have a good amount of time to raise the resources that are necessary for the fall.”
Some Democratic campaign veterans fear the party is underestimating both the level of Trump’s preparations for 2020 and what it will take to unseat a sitting president. The level of preparation by Trump’s staff echoes Obama’s 2012 campaign, said Rufus Gifford, former finance director for Obama’s 2012 re-election.
“We were sophisticated, we were organized, and we were well-funded. This is everything the Trump operation is. Taking away his craziness, he has an extremely professional operation,” said Gifford, who has argued in recent days that Democrats like Warren need to lean more into fundraising if they want to compete against Trump in the general election.
"We have got to be prepared, six months from now or less, to make sure that the nominee’s political operation is ready to hit the ground running, and ready to do everything they can do” to defeat Trump, Gifford said.
Against the backdrop of a badly outgunned national party — the DNC had only $8.2 million on hand at the end of August, a fraction of the RNC’s nearly $54 million — only one major Democratic outside group has started spending money to counter the Trump campaign.
Priorities USA, the SuperPAC poised to spend the most on behalf of Democrats in the 2020 presidential cycle, started spending money this fall, training its firepower on four battleground states — Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida. Since July, according to Advertising Analytics, Priorities has spent $2.5 million on digital efforts in those four states.
The daunting sums raised by both the RNC and Trump in the third quarter is nothing compared to what Democrats are expecting Republicans will churn out by year’s end, said Priorities USA Executive Director Patrick McHugh.
He noted that a Trump campaign that’s already perfected tapping into and monetizing anger in the Republican base turned out record fundraising even before fully exploiting backlash from an impeachment “witch hunt.”
“At some point that campaign is going to start dumping into these battleground states in a real way. We have to have a way to match him,” McHugh said. “We can’t overreact right now at the expense of being able to hold him accountable later. We will be the largest spender in the presidential race for sure. That doesn’t mean we can do it alone. We’re going to need help from our allies.”
The DNC said Sunday that it had raised $7.7 million in September, ending the month with $8.6 million in cash on hand — more than at the same time in 2015, when Democrats held the White House.
Xochitl Hinojosa, the DNC’s communications director, expressed confidence that Democrats will be financially competitive in 2020, saying “donors will coalesce around our nominee because there has never been a more unifying Republican opponent for Democrats than Donald Trump … There has never been this much angst about what this president has done to our country.”
One challenge for Democrats within the party’s fundraising ecosystem is already surfacing: intraparty sniping about who should be stepping up to raise money for Democrats. After Republicans announced a multi-million ad assault in early states against Biden, the former vice president’s supporters and DNC critics lashed out at the party apparatus, saying it should help defend against Trump’s attempts to take out one of the Democratic frontrunners. DNC Chairman Tom Perez has said it wasn’t the DNC’s role.
One of Biden’s supporters, Dick Harpootlian, a former DNC member and two-time South Carolina Democratic Party chair, took aim at Perez, saying his inability to come within striking distance of GOP fundraising — even at a time when Trump is facing impeachment — has put Democrats in a grave situation.
“Tom Perez is as useless as tits on a boar hog,” said Harpootlian. “My advice to Tom Perez is quit, get out of the way or do something different. Maybe they need to send a spy to the Republican shop and find out how they’re raising hundreds of millions of dollars off of a guy like Donald Trump."
Another centrist voice, Matt Bennett, co-founder of the Third Way think tank, suggested that billionaire Tom Steyer exit the presidential primary and direct his resources toward combating the Trump advertising in early states that target Biden.
“If I were Tom Steyer, what I would do is drop out and announce that all the resources I was going to put toward my campaign [instead would go to] defending against the slander and slime being directed at [Biden] by Donald Trump and his henchmen,” Bennett said, arguing that it wasn’t about protecting Biden but about not allowing Trump to control the Democratic primary.
Steyer’s campaign took offense, noting that the businessman dug into his own pockets to lead the charge on impeachment and separately launched a national voter registration drive before the 2018 midterms. Steyer is also bankrolling “Talk to Trump ads” that are currently running on “Fox and Friends,” which “highlights real people calling out Trump's presidency for the failure it is,” according to Steyer’s campaign.
“Tom has already committed over $50 million separate from his campaign to help Democrats win in 2020 and is running anti-Trump ads in key states and nationally right now,” said Steyer campaign spokesman Benjamin Gerdes.
Not everyone is convinced the party needs to raise the alarms yet. Some see promising signs in the fundraising potential next year, with Warren and Sanders, among other candidates, cultivating large lists of small donors who can contribute repeatedly ahead of the general election campaign.
Others are convinced that the clear and present danger of a second Trump term will ultimately spark an avalanche of Democratic cash against him.
Ben Wikler, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said, “The only way the Democratic nominee won’t have enough money is if tens of millions of Democrats wake up finding that they’ve made their peace with the idea of Trump getting re-elected. And that’s not going to happen.”
Given the nature of the wide-open primary, some donors are “absolutely” waiting to donate until a nominee is selected, said Steve Westly, a former California state controller and major bundler of campaign contributions for Obama.
“The second Democrats coalesce around a single candidate, I believe there will be a tidal wave of money going to the Democratic nominee,” said Westly, a Biden supporter.
Sean Bagniewski, chairman of Iowa's Polk County Democrats, said the county’s recent Steak Fry, which drew record attendance, raised “nuts money for us,” though he declined to say how much.
“Money’s really important, but it’s shocking how much money can be raised through ActBlue and small donors,” he said. “Whoever the nominee is, they’re going to have millions of dollars the first day they’re the nominee.”
Even if they don’t, Trump himself offers the example of a candidate who prevailed despite being outspent by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Unlike in down-ballot races where candidates have to spend millions of dollars to introduce themselves to voters, major party nominees have near-universal name recognition.
Charles Chamberlain, chairman of the progressive group Democracy for America, said his main concern heading into 2020 is that “Democrats nominate somebody who doesn’t inspire the grassroots.”
Democrats are “delusional” if they think “that winning in 2020 is going to be a cakewalk,” he said. However, “I’m only worried about the money if we nominate an uninspiring, disappointing nominee.”