Dems show surprising strength at start of brutal 2018 midterm

Though no one denies Senate Democrats are in for a rough 2018 midterm election, a host of their vulnerable incumbents just posted some eye-popping fundraising numbers — a sign the party won’t easily cede more ground to Republicans next year.

Of the 10 Senate Democrats up for reelection in states that Donald Trump won last fall, six of them brought in at least $2 million in the first quarter of 2017. Most Democrats far outpaced fundraising compared to the two Senate Republicans being targeted by Democrats next year: Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who both raised $1.4 million during the first three months of the year.

And on average, Senate Democrats in competitive races outraised GOP incumbents at the same point in the 2016 election cycle.

Democrats are heavy underdogs to win back the Senate because they have to defend 25 seats vs. just nine that Republicans are trying to keep in their column. But the Democratic senators’ blockbuster first-quarter numbers — buoyed by liberal grassroots opposition to President Donald Trump — are giving them an early shot of momentum heading into the midterms. Strategists also hope the numbers will scare off potential GOP challengers at a time when Republicans are struggling to recruit candidates.

Republicans say it’s too soon to sweat the Democratic incumbents’ fundraising. Though the first midterm election of a new president is typically a referendum on the commander-in-chief and favors the party out of power in the White House, no one knows how Donald Trump will be perceived 18 months from now. It’s also noteworthy that the Republican Senate campaign arm outraised its Democratic counterpart.

Still, Democrats are cautiously optimistic that they can, at least, stanch additional hemorrhaging in the Senate — after a 2016 election in which the party was widely expected to win control of the chamber.

“I think we’re seeing a lot of evidence for a check-and-balance electorate,” said J.B. Poersch of Senate Majority PAC, the main super PAC for Senate Democrats. “These senators have worked hard to be well-defined and well-liked in their states. Despite a challenging map, these incumbents have a strong chance at reelection in 2018.”

Here are POLITICO’s five takeaways from first-quarter Senate fundraising figures:

Senate Democrats’ boffo quarter

With a $2.8 million haul, Sen. Claire McCaskill shattered fundraising records in Missouri, raising more than any other senator or Senate hopeful in her state during the first quarter of an off-year. So did Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, whose $1.6 million sum was the best first-quarter figures for a Senate candidate in that state in a non-election year.

Two other Senate Democrats in ruby-red states also had strong quarters: Jon Tester in Montana raised more than $2 million and Joe Donnelly brought in $1.3 million in Indiana.

Some Democratic strategists credit a revved-up liberal base — motivated to fight Trump at every turn and pressuring senators to do the same — for the spike, though others downplayed Trump’s influence on fundraising.

“I don’t think it has a whole lot to do with Trump,” said Justin Barasky, campaign manager for Sen. Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio) reelection bid. “I think it has to do with the depth of support that Sherrod has throughout the state. People in Ohio and elsewhere know what Sherrod is up against.”

In other states where Democrats are defending seats, Brown raised $2.4 million, while Florida Sen. Bill Nelson collected $2.2 million, Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin $2.2 million, Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey $2.7 million and Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow nearly $1.3 million.

The one exception to the Democrats’ massive fundraising haul this quarter was Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who raised just under $553,000. Still, Manchin, whose state Trump won by more than 40 points, has nearly $2.2 million the bank.

GOP challengers? Not so much

Potential Republican challengers collected middling amounts by comparison. Indiana Rep. Luke Messer, who is considering a challenge to Donnelly, raised just over $700,000. Rep. Todd Rokita, another potential Donnelly opponent, raised a mere $320,000. By comparison, now-Sen. Todd Young raised $1 million in the quarter following GOP Sen. Dan Coats’ retirement announcement in March 2015.

Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner, who has a reputation as a prolific fundraiser dating back to her days as an RNC co-chair and state party chair, raised $800,000 for a potential bid against McCaskill. (Wagner was also working in a finance position for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which set fundraising records with a $36 million haul over the first three months of the year.) North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer, talked about as a potential Heitkamp challenger, raised $322,000.

Still, the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s $16 million first-quarter haul should relieve worried Republicans. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which consistently outraised the NRSC last cycle, raised just under $14 million.

CUT: One national GOP strategist said wasn’t worried about the low Republican figures: “The Democrats have set a benchmark, and hopefully our candidates can step up and meet that.”

And in Ohio, two Republicans posted impressive totals. State treasurer and 2012 candidate Josh Mandel raised $1.2 million, while Rep. Pat Tiberi, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, banked almost $1.4 million. But some of that cash is almost certainly destined for a contested primary.

Senate Republicans at this point in 2015

Two years ago, the Senate map was essentially a mirror image of the 2018 cycle: A host of GOP senators were up in blue and purple states, while Democrats had few seats to defend.

While six Democratic senators raised more than $2 million in the first quarter of 2017, just three GOP senators had banked at least that amount at this point two years ago: Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and John McCain of Arizona, all prolific fundraisers. No other Republican incumbents in key 2016 races had raised more than $1.4 million during the first quarter of 2015.

But two years ago, a handful of Republicans had war chests that far outpaced the cash-on-hand totals of Democrats this year. For instance, Portman already had $8 million at this point in 2015, while Toomey had reported nearly $7.3 million cash on hand. This year in those two states, Brown has a $5 million war chest, while Casey is reporting $3.8 million cash on hand.

McCaskill’s $2.8 million haul is nearly triple that of Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who raised just under $1.1 million during the first quarter of 2015. But both reported similar cash on hand totals after the first three months of the cycle: $3 million.

Boost in small-dollar donations

In Ohio, Brown’s average contribution was $38. About 85 percent of Tester’s donations were $100 or less. And McCaskill’s campaign boasted that it had more than 5,500 new Missouri donors, while the average donation was $59.

Democrats are particularly ebullient about the smaller contributions, since that means donors are far from being maxed out and can keep donating as the midterms get closer. And they believe the controversies coming out of the Trump White House will give them no shortage of fundraising opportunities.

“Our base is motivated and the small-dollar donations are the latest sign that they are engaged early head into 2018,” DSCC communications director Lauren Passalacqua said.

The uptick in online donations isn’t unique to Democrats; the NRSC has also gotten a boost in online fundraising. But Democrats have a built-in advantage with ActBlue, the online fundraising portal for Democratic candidates, that gives donors one clearinghouse for online contributions. There’s no ActBlue equivalent for Republicans.

“They know how to fund us, but we don’t have the same system where there’s just one website,” one GOP official said. “We just don’t have it.”

Big 2018 numbers for potential 2020-ers

Two Democrats in seemingly safe blue seats — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy — posted massive numbers in the first quarter, with Warren pulling in $5.2 million and Murphy banking $3 million. Warren and Murphy are considered potential 2020 presidential contenders, but first need to win reelection.

Warren and Murphy may not need their cash to keep their seats, but both could build chits by spreading the wealth. Senators can give an unlimited amount to the DSCC, and Murphy has already said he will use some campaign funds to build up anti-Trump groups in his home state.

Former Democratic vice presidential nominee and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine raised $2.9 million. Kaine represents a blue-trending swing state that’s further down the NRSC’s target list.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is occasionally mentioned as a presidential nominee, raised $1.5 million. Another potential 2020 candidate up for reelection in 2018, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, raised $4.4 million in the first three months of 2017.

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