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Progressive Candidates for Governor Trail in the Money Race

While progressive candidates for Congress are being generously supported, gubernatorial hopefuls are being badly outraised by their GOP opponents.

Ben Jealous
Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous has just $386,000 cash on hand. Like many other progressive state-level candidates this year, he's finding it hard to raise funds.
(AP/Patrick Semansky)
The progressive Democrats who have won nominations this year for governor have a lot in common. They are highly critical of President Trump and his immigration policies; they generally favor legalizing marijuana; and they want to expand health care, in some cases with single-payer plans.

They are also having a hard time raising money.

In a year where spending records are being broken in races for governor all over the country, progressive Democratic nominees in Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Maryland are being badly outraised by their GOP opponents. At the same time, they are facing millions of dollars' worth of attack ads sponsored by the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and other outside groups.

The left's anti-Trump fervor at the federal level is not fully extending itself into state races. While progressive congressional candidates are being generously supported by super PACs and individual donors eager to overturn Republican majorities in Congress, gubernatorial hopefuls aren't seeing the same type of support.

"A lot of resistance-attention is focused at the Washington level," says Catherine Vaughan, CEO of Flippable, an independent group supporting Democratic candidates for state legislatures. "We have been trying to get people focused on states. We are trying to show people that it's even more important that we elect more progressive governors and legislators in the states."

Last year, Democrat Jon Ossoff broke all fundraising records for a U.S. House race, collecting $30 million for his unsuccessful campaign in Georgia against Republican Karen Handel in the first congressional special election of the cycle. By contrast, Stacey Abrams -- the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Georgia who has attracted national attention as a hero of the left, even appearing on the cover of Time -- had raised just $6 million by the end of June. That's not bad, but it's a fraction of the $33 million that had already been spent on the race to that point.

In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has raised more than $3 million -- 10 times the amount collected by David Garcia, a college professor who won the Democratic nomination to oppose him last week. The Republican Governors Association has already spent more than $9 million on the race, with nearly all of those dollars devoted to attacking Garcia.

Ben Jealous, the Democratic nominee in Maryland, reported last week having just $386,000 cash on hand, compared with $9.4 million in the bank for GOP Gov. Larry Hogan, who has already spent freely on the race. Jealous, a former NAACP president, has been pummeled by more than $2 million worth of attack ads by the RGA.

"It's not just the difference between the candidates," says Mileah Kromer, who directs a politics center at Goucher College in Baltimore. "In Jealous' case, I think everybody's sort of waiting to see if there's a significant investment from the Bernie Sanders crowd or the DGA [Democratic Governors Association] because the RGA has hammered him so hard over the summer."

In Florida, the RGA has committed $10 million and may spend double that amount in support of Congressman Ron DeSantis, who won the GOP nomination for governor last week. By comparison, the Democratic Governors Association is pledging $1 million so far.


How Much Does Money Matter?

Money isn't everything. Progressives rarely mention their new standard-bearer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, without noting that she won her New York congressional primary in June despite being outspent by incumbent Joseph Crowley by a 10-to-1 margin. 

Similarly, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum won the Florida Democratic nomination for governor last month despite being heavily outspent by his three leading rivals. And Abrams, Jealous and Gillum have all emphasized their interest in devoting resources to grassroots turnout efforts, as opposed to free-spending advertising campaigns.

In Georgia, Republicans have attacked Abrams for carrying some $200,000 worth of personal debt, but many of her supporters say they can relate.

"I've appreciated coverage of Stacey Abrams and her debt and the difficulty for people without wealth in running," Vaughan says. "Those stories are even more relevant at the state legislative level. You have a lot of candidates who are not career politicians, who may not have a Rolodex of donors and may not be independently wealthy."

But as Kromer, the political scientist, puts it: "Money does not buy votes, but it sure makes it easier to get them."

Not every Democrat running for governor is strapped for cash.

In California, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running on a policy platform well to the left of the agenda pursued by term-limited Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, has raised more than $30 million on his way to almost-certain victory in November.

Congressman Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee for governor of Colorado, is a multimillionaire thanks to sales of internet retail companies. Polis spent more than $11 million ahead of the June primary and has kept his checkbook open for the fall campaign.

"The Polis personal money is a huge factor," says Dick Wadhams, a Republican consultant and former Colorado GOP chair. "It propelled him to the nomination and is now a big advantage in the general election."

Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker outraised the entire Democratic field ahead of last month's primary, but once Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction, emerged as the party's nominee, Democratic donors started coming off the sidelines.

"Evers raised $1 million in his first 9 days" after winning the primary, says Jared Leopold, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. "That is huge." Similarly, Gillum raised $2 million in the 48 hours after winning Florida's Democratic primary.

Walker himself talks in his stump speech about the threat of outside Democratic groups, including billionaires George Soros and Tom Steyer and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee that supports state-level candidates and is headed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Steyer, who spent more than $1 million in support of Gillum's primary bid, has said he'll spend at least $5 million in Florida in the fall.

Along with Flippable, several other new groups have sprung up this cycle to support Democratic candidates at the state level. All told, however, progressive Democrats are still being outgunned by their Republican opponents and outside groups. As of June, the RGA reported raising $113 million, compared with $67 million for the DGA.


Why the Lag?

Historically, Republicans have usually done better at raising money than Democrats. But there are several factors making it especially hard for Democrats to keep up this year.

For one, progressives have turned spurning corporate cash into a virtue -- even, in some cases, into a litmus test.

For another, business-minded Democratic donors are unlikely to line up eagerly behind candidates who promise spending programs like single-payer health care that would be funded by sizable tax increases.

And while small-scale donors are ready to offer support to progressive candidates through a few clicks, they have largely kept their attention focused on congressional races. Democratic candidates for governor often talk about their disdain for Trump, but they can't cast votes directly against his agenda in the way that U.S. representatives and senators can. 

"If you're upset at Trump, it's easy to say we need to elect members of Congress and senators to hold Trump accountable," says Steve Geller, a Broward County commissioner and a former Democratic leader in the Florida Senate. "It's not as easy for state offices."

Democrats have the chance to erode some of the GOP's dominance of state offices this year, with Republicans defending 26 governorships to the Democrats' nine. Democratic candidates who know they will be outspent insist they will have enough resources to be competitive.

But so far, at least, Democratic donors have been unable or unwilling to match the GOP's fundraising efforts for top state offices.

"In some ways, Democrats have always been more obsessed with national politics," says Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America, a Washington think tank, "and Republicans more disciplined about winning state elections."

This story has been updated.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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