California Republicans are hoping to make up some of the ground they lost in 2018 congressional races — but first they’ll have to close an early fundraising gap.
That’s one of the major takeaways from the first set of fundraising reports of 2019, which show that when it comes to the race for cash, California Democrats picked up right where they left off last year.
Seven freshmen Democrats flipped seats in 2018 — Reps. Josh Harder of Turlock, T.J. Cox of Fresno, Katie Hill of Santa Clarita, Gil Cisneros of Phelan, Katie Porter of Irvine, Harley Rouda of Newport Beach and Mike Levin of Vista.
Combined, they raised $3.4 million in the first three months of the year, a signal that the state’s Democratic donor base remains revved up to retain House control after a historic 2018 election.
Two Democratic challengers also outraised Republican incumbents in California. Ammar Campa-Najjar outraised scandal-plagued Rep. Duncan Hunter of Alpine more than three-to-one while Audrey Denney raised nearly three times as much as Rep. Doug La Malfa of Oroville. Campa-Najjar and Denney ran unsuccessfully for those districts in 2018.
Hunter, a former Marine, raised less than a fellow Republican in the race, retired Navy SEAL Larry Wilske.
Hunter prevailed in 2018 despite being outspent by Campa-Najjar by more than two-to-one — and being indicted for misusing campaign funds for personal expenses. Denney spent roughly the same on her 2018 campaign as La Malfa did and lost by nearly 10 percentage points.
“For some of these districts, partisanship is a wall that money can’t crack,” said Nathan Gonzales, a political handicapper and editor of the Inside Elections newsletter. “Hunter is a good example of a case where money doesn’t solve all problems.”
Just a few Republicans launched challenges to California’s seven Democratic freshmen before April 1, but those who did trailed well behind the incumbents in cash.
Laguna Hills Councilman Donald Sedgewick posted the strongest fundraising numbers of any of them, raising $140,000 in less than a month for his race against Porter in Orange County. San Juan Capistrano Mayor Bryan Maryott, who is running for Levin’s seat straddling San Diego and Orange County, raised $44,000 but also contributed $250,000 of his own funds to his campaign.
In the Central Valley, former Turlock City Councilman Ted Howze raised roughly $30,000 for his second run for Harder’s Modesto-area seat. Howze reported over $300,000 in the bank thanks to a personal loan to his campaign.
That still pales in comparison to the nearly $800,000 warchest that Harder has compiled, thanks to another massive first quarter fundraising haul. He led the way among the seven Democrats being targeted by Republicans in 2020.
Harder on Wednesday sent out an email fundraising appeal warning that Howze’s campaign account represented “some serious money to spend attacking my reputation.”
For incumbent members of Congress, coming out strong in the first fundraising the report of the election cycle is as much about sending a message as building up their reelection infrastructure.
“The candidate with the most money doesn’t always win, but it certainly helps define the conversation in a race,” said Gonzales. “The party with the spending advantage can help focus voters on issues that are beneficial to their candidate.” Given how expensive it is to buy advertising in most of California’s media markets, fundraising is particularly important in the state’s congressional races.
For Democratic challengers in California, the hope is that their fundraising numbers will help put their races on the map and, potentially, attract support from national organizations.
If she continues to substantially outraise La Malfa, Denney could start to draw national attention the same way Democrat Jessica Morse did in her unsuccessful 2018 run against Republican Rep. Tom McClintock. La Malfa’s district, which includes Redding, Chico and Grass Valley, is about as conservative as McClintock’s, although Republicans have a slightly smaller registration advantage there.
McClintock’s one declared challenger in 2020, Sean Frame, raised $30,000 in the first quarter of 2019.
As of now, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has included Hunter’s seat on its list of 2020 targets, but not La Malfa or McClintock.
For California’s House incumbents, the fundraising numbers set a marker for any candidate aiming to oust them in 2020 and, they hope, will be intimidating enough to keep some from launching challenges.
Particularly in Southern California, the congressional races are likely to be crowded affairs.
Since April 1, three Republicans have launched campaigns to challenge Hill in her San Ferndando Valley district. They include former Navy pilot Mike Garcia, who promptly received endorsements from former Republican Reps. Howard “Buck” McKeon and Elton Gallegly.
Two Republicans have also filed paperwork to run against Porter, two against Harder and one against Cisneros. It’s unclear how much of a threat they will pose.
Republican party aides expect more candidates to join the fields in these districts in the coming months.
“These socialist Democrats are trying to compensate with cash because they know the socialist agenda they’re pushing is out of whack with Californians,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair said in a statement. “They’re worried about their reelection prospects, and they should be worried.”