A Lag in Fundraising Casts Doubt on DNC’s 2020 Influence

The Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) political power come 2020 remains on the line, as the committee continues to lag its Republican counterpart in fundraising, potentially causing problems for Democrats as they prepare for an expensive battle against President Donald Trump in the upcoming election.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) collected a record-breaking $15.5 million in contributions in March, far surpassing the DNC’s $8.1 million, which included a $1 million loan. About 87 percent of the RNC’s March donations went toward its campaign efforts. That’s more than double the $6.3 million spent by the DNC in the same month. The RNC currently stands with $33.1 million cash-on-hand, triple that of the DNC.

Although giving to individual candidates and outside groups has steadily risen over the past decade, contributions to the national committees have stayed fairly steady. The DNC has yet to surpass its 2004 fundraising record of $404 million.

Recent filings show signs of financial trouble ahead for the DNC. This March’s haul is half of what the DNC raised at the same time in 2015. A $6.6 million debt from past election expenses also weighs on the DNC’s financial future. The RNC has no debt.

This comes as wealthy megadonors are already pumping contributions into joint fundraising committees that split contributions between Trump’s campaign and the RNC. This year, Trump’s Make America Great Again committee has already transferred $4.2 million to the RNC.

“The RNC did a lot to help Trump win, and if you’re a donor you know that the RNC is a well-oiled machine,” said Stephen Medvic, a professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania said. “The DNC seems a little bit lost at this point without a clear strategy for raising money.”

Hillary Clinton’s JFC boosted the DNC’s revenue during her presidential campaign throughout the 2016 cycle, but the Democratic party currently lacks a clear front-runner to help raise funds for the committee. Still, the DNC’s clouded financial future does not mean the Democratic party as a whole is lacking in fundraising potential.

Although the DNC does not have comparable funding streams to the RNC, Democrat-tied “dark money” groups, including Majority Forward, and super-PACs such as Senate Majority PAC have gained prominence. A 501(c)(4) “dark money” group called Future Majority recently formed in an effort to provide strategy and messaging for 2020 Democrats in swing states — a role typically served by party committees.

The expansion of party-connected super PACs and associated “dark money” groups accepting unlimited donations have eclipsed the traditional national committees, which are still subject to contribution limits and mandatory disclosures.

And congressional committees such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have become fundraising powerhouses in their own right. The DCCC raised more than $296 million in 2018, having steadily increased its contributions since raising $92 million in 2004.

It’s not necessarily the Democratic party itself that is the problem, Medvic said. The DNC has been rattled by its fair share of controversy as of late — from the 2016 email hack to high staff turnover and internal schisms between progressive and establishment Democrats.

In Medvic’s eyes, a combination of unstable leadership, a lack of clear vision and the loss of the 2016 presidential election may have caused donors to lose confidence in the committee.

“Whether it’s something to worry about is another question,” he said. “Democratic nominees have often done a good job of raising money on their own.”

In the crowded 20-plus Democratic race for president, candidates have dug their teeth into the challenge of catching 65,000 donors — the minimum set by the DNC to claim a spot on the debate stage.

Candidates cast out their fundraising pleas far and wide, cajoling cautious Democratic voters to throw their financial support in early on.

Another route to the stage for candidates involves securing 1 percent of support in three different polls. So far, 17 candidates have qualified for the debate stage. If more than 20 candidates ultimately do qualify, the DNC will institute tiebreakers, such as selecting candidates who meet both donor and poll minimums.

Several candidates hope to capture the bulk of small-dollar donors, especially since swearing off corporate-PAC money carries unprecedented political capital among progressive voting blocs. But as the DNC gears up for its convention next summer in Milwaukee, the organization will likely seek corporate sponsors, as has been typical for both parties in years past. Recently, the DNC rejected more progressive candidates’ calls to ban corporate PACs altogether, exposing an internal tug-of-war.

The DNC did not return multiple requests for comment.

The DNC did not take corporate money in March, but it has embraced corporate PAC dollars in the past and could continue to do so. In comparison, the RNC accepted a total of $45,000 in donations from Boeing, Comcast and Pfizer.

The no-corporate-PAC debate may still come to haunt the DNC, given the negative message it sends to corporations, Medvic said.

“It might be harder and harder for the DNC to raise [corporate] money because the signal being sent to the business community is that a whole chunk of the Democratic party doesn’t want your money to begin with.”