Women Running For Congress Are The Literal Breadwinners Of The 2018 Midterms

by Hannah Golden
Drew Angerer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

For someone who's never run for office before, 31-year-old Katie Hill is indisputably crushing it. As of Sept. 24, the Democrat, running for Congress in California's 25th district, had raised $2.4 million. That's almost double the $1.47 million that incumbent Rep. Steve Knight, a Republican who's held the seat since 2015, brought in. And Hill isn't alone, an Elite Daily analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) data shows. At least 10 Democratic female House candidates have out-fundraised the male Republican incumbents they’re looking to unseat in the 2018 midterms, in what's been an impressive election cycle for Democratic women overall.

But raising that eye-popping chunk of change didn't come easily, especially considering Hill doesn't accept money from corporate political action committees (PACs). Early on in the campaign, she found it hard to ask for money. “One of the things I’ve struggled with is, and I know other women [candidates] have struggled with, is, who am I to be doing this?” she tells me in an interview for Elite Daily. “Male candidates, they’ll just do it, and if they’ve got money, a lot of times, they’ll end up succeeding.”

"I started thinking of it as a cause," Hill explains. "When we shift [the conversation with donors] to, we're trying to fundraise for a cause, for the good of our country, it's a lot easier." Whatever strategies she and her counterparts nationwide are using to bring in the money, it appears to be working.

Ben Steinberger/Katie Hill for Congress

According to a database of House candidates registered for the 2018 midterms, provided to Elite Daily by the FEC on Aug. 25, 10 female challengers, all of them Democrats, had raised more than the male Republican incumbents in those races. (These figures are based on FEC contribution totals, and a spokesperson for the commission tells me via email that the data are constantly changing due to factors around contribution disclosure requirements and delays in reporting.)

That 10 woman-figure is particularly impressive when you consider that only 121 women House challengers are in the running overall. Even more impressive, as of that same date only 22 of the total House challengers, both men and women, had out-raised their incumbent opponent.

The support for these candidates is one more signal that Democratic women overall are making a jaw-dropping showing in the midterm elections, representing almost a third of the party's overall candidates for House and potentially bringing the total number of women in the House total up to 211, almost half of the 435 seats. This trend, which experts say is outside the norm, might give some insights as to what donors are feeling about candidates this election cycle.

"This implies that the increase in female candidates is not just made up of people running as 'warm bodies,' but rather that the women running are active candidates raising enough money to potentially win their elections," reads a report by the Center for Responsive Politics (CPR), which runs the non-profit campaign funding database OpenSecrets.

Doug Weber, an analyst with CPR, tells me in an email that it's unusual for any challenger, regardless of gender, to out-raise an incumbent. "There has been a dramatic increase in fundraising by female House candidates [by Democrats]," he writes.

Of the 10 women challengers, as of FEC data on Sept. 24, the average total contribution was more than $1.82 million, outpacing their respective male incumbents by an average of around half a million dollars. That’s a pretty significant chunk, considering how much money an average candidate might bring in overall during an election cycle: Per CPR, the average 2018 House candidate had raised about $917,492 as of Sept. 24. And the trend appears to have been going on for a some time now: at the close of the second quarter on June 30, Emily's List, an organization that works to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office, reported that 11 of their candidates had also out-raised the male incumbents in their races.

It is a lot of work to raise this money in a competitive campaign; it takes a lot of dedication and determination.

"That women can persevere through these primaries and are out-raising [Republican incumbents] in the most competitive races in the country is critically important,” Julie McClain Downey, senior director of campaign communications for Emily's List, says in an interview for Elite Daily. “People who aren't involved in campaigns might not realize that it's such a big deal, but it is."

Another handful of Emily’s List candidates, she adds, had raised over $1 million by the second quarter close, something she says is “mind-boggling.” Furthermore, almost all of these candidates are running in the most hotly contested seats in the country — districts that Clinton won in 2016 but are still held by Republicans.

“It is a lot of work to raise this money in a competitive campaign; it takes a lot of dedication and determination,” McClain Downey says. “These are women who are really passionate.”

The phenomenon appears only to apply to Democratic women. The percentage of female candidates among those running for House in the Republican party, about 14 percent, is substantially lower than the percentage of female Democrats running. As an August New York Times article points out, the environment for female candidates in the Republican party is much less hospitable than the opposing party, and many GOP women have been discouraged from running altogether in light of many women voters’ sentiments towards President Donald Trump. As of Sept. 4, polls showed that about two-thirds of female voters disapproved of him.

What's even more astonishing: Many of these women, like Hill, are first-time candidates. Unseating an incumbent in any circumstance is no easy feat, but the task becomes that much more difficult for those who've never run for office before. Incumbents enjoy a handful of advantages in an election year — including an existing donor base — that newcomers seldom have.

"There's a certain amount of gravitas that comes with being a sitting congressperson — you have a following, you have prestige, you've already won a campaign before," McClain Downey explains. "First-time candidates really have got to work extra hard to build that network and infrastructure." Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist and scholar with the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP), agrees. "In the vast majority of races where women (or men) challenged incumbents in primaries, they lost — regardless of money," she tells me in an email interview for Elite Daily.

The old time-tested wisdom about money in elections is that the candidate who spends the most wins, particularly in a challenger-incumbent showdown. (This was true in 91 percent of the congressional races in the 2014 midterms.) But Dittmar cautions that while money is a strong predictor of a win, it's certainly not the only factor at play. "Both research and anecdotal evidence show that money is not a guarantee of success," Dittmar says. "The incumbency advantage, while tied to financial resources, is arguably more influential." Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, beat out incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in the June primary despite having a fraction of the funding. As of June 30, she'd brought in just over $800,000 compared to incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley's nearly $4 million.

They’re not taking on this endeavor lightly — they are in it to win.

To clarify, the amount of money a campaign spends and what it's able to fundraise are two different figures, but one certainly contributes to the other. And the amount that donors are willing to shell out for particular candidates is its own revealing measure —  potentially an indication that donors have an appetite for electing more women.

The fact that women challengers are successful fundraisers, McClain Downey says, "shows that they’re running really good, strong, smart campaigns, and that they’re not taking on this endeavor lightly — they are in it to win.” Moreover, their strong showings, both at bringing in money and at the polls, sends a message to other donors and the party at large about the larger viability of women in these races.

As a case in point, Frank Llewyn, the treasurer for Ocasio-Cortez's campaign, tells me in an email that he's "confident" the campaign brought in more in the third quarter. In fact, the June primary victory boosted their fundraising, he says, writing, "The campaign store sold out its complete inventory in the week after the win." Whereas financial wins may beget electoral ones, it can clearly happen the other way around, too.

"What we’ve been successful at is getting people to truly buy in," Hill says. "It's not just 'Give us a donation,' but asking their friends and recruiting other people into the movement. ... It’s that that allows us to pull off these huge fundraising targets."

As for who’s providing financial backing, according to CPR, only 31 percent of an average House candidate's funding comes from female donors. And ironically, recent political drama and policy changes — particularly those that have implications for women, like the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the zero-tolerance policy that separated families at the border, and attacks on abortion rights — may actually help women candidates like these. “When these moments happen, moments of national importance, candidates have been the beneficiaries of a lot of activism that people feel,” McClain Downey says. And as the midterms on Nov. 6 inch closer, that trend is likely to continue.

So no, money isn't everything, but it's something. And whether or not they end up winning, these women challenging male incumbents are making it clear that they're eyeing victories this fall — and donors apparently are, too.