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Democratic Senate challengers stun Republicans with massive fundraising haul

Energized grassroots liberals flooded Democratic Senate challengers with campaign cash during the second quarter, shocking Republicans who now confront opponents armed with millions in small-dollar donations.

In interviews Wednesday, veteran Republican strategists reacted with unusual astonishment. They described fundraising by Democratic Senate candidates in April, May, and June as “unprecedented” — collectively and race by race.

Historically, incumbent senators of both parties harbored significant fundraising advantages over challengers. As recently as the previous election cycle, an incumbent who raised a few million dollars during a three-month period would have been considered incredibly successful, especially in a race in small states such as Iowa and Maine. In that context, what Democratic challengers accomplished in the second quarter of this year has left Republicans astounded.

In Iowa, Democrat Theresa Greenfield, challenging Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, raked in $6 million from donations averaging $30.44. In Maine, Democrat Sara Gideon raised $9 million and now has more cash on hand than Republican Sen. Susan Collins. In Montana, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, challenging Republican Sen. Steve Daines, enjoyed a $7.7 million haul. In North Carolina, Democrat Cal Cunningham, running against Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, collected $7.4 million.

In South Carolina, a red state where Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham is favored, Democrat Jaime Harrison raised $13.9 million. Across the Senate playing field, from Arizona to Colorado, to Georgia, to Kansas, Democratic challengers are raising sums to boast about, and Republican insiders are now quietly beginning to think triage and ponder which 2020 incumbents the party might be forced to abandon down the stretch of the fall campaign.

Some strategists are sounding the alarm that GOP incumbents, both the vulnerable and some presumed safe, are on track to be overwhelmed this fall just as House Republicans were in midterm elections two years ago.

The massive accumulation of resources came amid a coronavirus-induced recession that has left tens of millions of Americans jobless. Republicans active in defending the party’s 53-seat majority say that dynamic reveals a Democratic electorate highly motivated to oust President Trump and his allies, blowing a hole in GOP assumptions the president stands to benefit from an enthusiasm edge compared to presumptive nominee Joe Biden.

“No question, the environment for Democrats is as good as it gets,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist and close confidant of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

“Anyone questioning Democratic enthusiasm is an idiot,” added a Republican strategist advising GOP congressional candidates. “This is looking like a repeat of 2018.”

Even Republicans jittery about the state of the Senate majority say a key difference between the 2018 midterm elections and this year’s campaign is providing a ray of hope about November: WinRed. The internet platform was created last year by the GOP to rival its Democratic counterpart, Act Blue, and bundles grassroots contributions for the party’s candidates and builds lucrative lists of small donors who give repeatedly online over the course of an election cycle.

But growing pessimism is the prevailing sentiment in Republican circles as party operatives digest Democratic Senate candidates’ second-quarter fundraising numbers.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is rejecting the doom and gloom. “Democrats will need to spend every penny to defend records that are disqualifying in the eyes of mainstream voters who will decide the outcome in key Senate races,” spokesman Jesse Hunt said.

Republicans emphasize that a disparity in resources is not the primary source of their concern. Although problematic, candidates do not necessarily need the most money to win, just enough to prosecute an effective campaign. The avalanche of donations to Democratic candidates might represent a commitment to vote that has little to do with the candidates and everything to do with rebuking Trump.

“Democrats are more motivated right now, and it’s reflected in their fundraising,” said a Republican consultant whose experience spans the blue waves of 2006, 2008, and 2018 and the red waves of 2010 and 2014. “They really don’t care who the candidates are.”

“Democratic Senate candidates have had strong grassroots fundraising all cycle, and these latest record-breaking numbers reflect the growing interest in these Senate battlegrounds and an unprecedented motivation to hold Republicans accountable,” said Lauren Passalacqua, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the party’s Senate campaign arm.

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