The metaphorical pocketbooks of several local political campaigns are feeling Democrats’ “anger” toward the White House.
More liberal voters are mad — ticking off a litany of frustrations including failing to take a definitive stance against alt-right supporters who engage in racist rhetoric, separating children from their parents at the southern U.S. border and what many say are numerous political gaffes by President Donald Trump since he took office. Those issues paired with the seeming unwillingness of many sitting members of Congress to denounce those actions, have encouraged many Democrats to reach into their pockets and support candidates they think better align with their values.
And, in Washington state, that ire is resonating — four of the state’s 10 Congressional districts so far this year have seen more money raised by Democrats than in the past three elections.
For example, in Washington’s 4th Congressional District — which includes Douglas, Okanogan, Grant, Yakima, Franklin, Benton and Adams counties — Democrat Christine Brown has raised more money than any other Democrat in the district since at least 2010. However, Republican incumbent Dan Newhouse has raised $757,361.84 — more than three times Brown’s $246,230.87.
Locally, state Legislative Districts 13 and 14 have seen the same trend while Legislative District 15 Democrats only trail their highest amount raised in the same time period by about $3,000.
Experts say the increase in Democrats’ fundraising success is a product of dissatisfaction with the current administration — a cycle that’s made only more apparent by increasing polarization nationally. But the increase in funds for Democrats doesn’t mean the election is sealed for anyone, especially in the highly conservative 4th Congressional District, which hasn’t seen a Democrat in the House of Representatives since incumbent Jay Inslee lost to Doc Hastings in 1994.
In other words: In the Yakima Valley, Democrat candidates have their work cut out for them.
But more money does give candidates a fighting chance, said University of Washington political science professor John Wilkerson.
Campaign donations are vital to help candidates introduce themselves to voters through informational handouts, signs and other paid advertising, Wilkerson said. This takes a candidate from being a relative nobody to someone voters will recognize on a ballot in November.
“What challengers need to do is they need to raise enough money to get their visibility up to a level where they become competitive — where voters are aware they’re running,” said Wilkerson, who also is University of Washington Center for American Politics and Public Policy director.
Donations also are used by voters and other donors to gauge a candidate’s potential for success, said Central Washington University political science professor Todd Schaefer.
“To use the horse-race campaign metaphor, one could say that money becomes a measure of competitiveness in part because donors are reluctant to place their money on a horse with long odds,” he said.
So more money means more viability, which in turn brings in more money and, hopefully for the candidate, votes.
Conversely, without money to pay for a staff, advertising and other needs, there really isn’t a campaign.
This year, much of Democrats’ money has come from voters dissatisfied with Trump and his administration, Schaefer said.
But this isn’t unusual for a midterm election.
History shows the president’s party generally does poorly in the midterm elections for a combination of three reasons: People are dissatisfied with a president’s performance, fewer people from the president’s party show up to vote in the midterms, and “strategic” or better-quality candidates from the other party run in the off years because they have a better chance to win, Wilkerson said.
“All of these theories are in play in the current election,” he said. “The models that we use to estimate aren’t so much about which party will gain but how much the president’s party is going to lose.”
But with America more polarized than ever, that impact is more tangible and the door open larger to candidates from another party, said Washington State University political science professor Travis Ridout.
As a result, more formidable candidates not in the president’s party enter the political sphere in midterm years because statistics show they have a better chance of winning. Because of their apparent abilities, they raise more money and ultimately earn more votes than similar candidates in presidential years who generally don’t put as much time and effort into campaigning.
Brown already has name recognition from her time as a reporter and television news anchor in Yakima and the Tri-Cities, something that could put her ahead of other Democrats who have tried — and failed — to win the 4th District. That same experience has given her knowledge about the district and its issues that an average person may not necessarily have.
And it shows in her fundraising.
At $246,230.87, according to the most recent Federal Elections Commission filing, only three other 4th Congressional District candidates — all Republicans — since 2010 have raised more money than her. However, Republican incumbent Dan Newhouse has out raised everyone the past three times he’s run for the seat. Even closer to home in Legislative District 14, which includes all of Klickitat and Skamania counties and parts of Yakima and Clark counties, the top two fundraisers are Democrats.
Sasha Bentley and Liz Hallock have raised $33,385.94 and $27,757.78 respectively. Republican incumbent Gina Mosbrucker comes in third with $26,827.76 in donations.
But money can only take a candidate so far.
Wilkerson said once voters have become familiar with a candidate and could pick their name out of a crowd, it’s each candidate’s policies that win an election.
“They just have to get above a base level (of recognition) to be competitive with the incumbent,” he said. “Whether they win or not isn’t a function of money, it’s about their ability to connect with voters in other ways than basic visibility.”
With Central Washington’s largely conservative voting record, Democrats will likely struggle appealing to average voters with their policies.
Of all the House of Representatives seats that experts say are likely to flip parties in the midterm, only two of the 70 are in Washington.
“It’s Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ seat and (retiring Dave) Reichert’s seats that are in play,” Wilkerson said. “Something can always happen but history would say the other races just aren’t competitive.”
And what seems to be a significant amount of money for Democrats in Central Washington, who have barely had any presence in past years, still doesn’t compare to normal Republican fundraising — the Republican National Committee routinely raises millions more than its Democrat counterpart — Ridout said.
“There is a minimum level you need to run a successful House campaign,” he said. “Five hundred thousand dollars may seem impressive when the previous candidate only raised $50,000. But that doesn’t mean it’s enough to beat an incumbent.”
To overcome the difference in money, name recognition and simple partisan politics, Brown and her staff are “hustling” to talk with voters at their homes and on social media to meet voters and let them know they have a non-Republican option, said campaign manager Tashi Chogyal.
“Let’s run a common-sense campaign where folks from all spectrums can rally behind Christine,” he said.
On the other side, Newhouse’s campaign manager Derek Flint said the staff hasn’t seen many problems fundraising and talking with voters.