WASHINGTON – In the first week after the Supreme Court stripped away a woman’s constitutional right to have an abortion, Democrats and aligned groups raised more than $80 million, a tangible early sign that the ruling may energize voters.
But party officials say donors are giving much of that money to national campaigns and causes instead of races for state office, where abortion policy will now be shaped as a result of the court's decision. That's where Republicans wield disproportionate power after more than a decade of plunging money and resources into critical but often-overlooked contests.
The fundraising disparity offers an example of how a lack of long-term planning can lead to both a structural disadvantage and an exasperated Democratic base. Short of the votes to pass legislation through a gridlocked and narrowly divided Congress, the right to abortion now appears to be the latest issue ceded largely to the states. That's after failed Democratic efforts to expand voting rights, limit gerrymandering and significantly stiffen gun laws.
“We can no longer afford Democrats’ systemic neglect of down-ballot races — not when Republicans are eager to intrude on our health care decisions, bedrooms, and marriages,” said Gabrielle Chew, a spokesperson for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which helps finance state legislative races. “This should be a wake-up call."
The massive $80 million fundraising haul was recorded by ActBlue, the Democrats' online fundraising platform, which has a ticker that shows in real time the money passing through the organization. ActBlue took in over $20 million in the first 24 hours after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that determined abortion was a constitutional right. By Tuesday, the group had processed more than $51 million in donations, and by Friday, the total had reached $80 million.
In fact, all major Democratic campaign committees reported a surge in contributions after the ruling, including those working on state-level as well as federal races. Planned Parenthood, too. But few have been willing to release hard numbers.
WinRed, the online fundraising portal for the Republican Party, did not respond to an inquiry about the party’s fundraising since the court’s decision.
The fundraising disparity is nothing new between Democratic groups working for state candidates and those focusing on national issues after a defining moment. For example, ActBlue took in more than $71 million in just 24 hours after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, little of which went to groups working on state-level campaigns.
Consider the case of Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison, who in 2020 shattered fundraising records in his long-shot bid to oust Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and head to Congress in Washington. Harrison ended up losing the race by more than 10 points. He raised more than $57 million in the closing months of his campaign, including one 24-hour period in which he raised over $1 million.
But for statehouses? The Democratic Governors Association announced it had raised $200,000 online after the court's decision last week. The organization said Thursday that it was on pace to raise $1 million before the start of the long Fourth of July weekend.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which raises money for state races across the country, declined to say how much it has taken in since the court decision. But its past fundraising figures demonstrate how under-resourced the group is.
The DLCC raised $650,000 in the 48 hours after a leaked copy of the court's decision surfaced in May. Earlier this year, it celebrated when announcing it had raised nearly $6 million in the final three months of last year.
Its GOP counterpart, the Republican State Leadership Committee, raised more than twice that during the same period last year.
“When Democrats (spend) 1-to-1 with Republicans in legislative races, we win them," said Greg Goddard, a Florida Democrat who raises money for national and state campaigns. "But when it’s 3-to-1, or 4-to-1, we get clobbered.”
Amanda Litman, co-founder of the group Run For Something, which recruits candidates to run for school boards, city councils and legislatures, said Democrats have a woeful track record when it comes to investing in down-ballot races that also build a bench of future talent.
“The worst laws are going to come from the reddest states, and they are not going to stay in those red state borders. So what are you going to do to mitigate the harm?” Litman said after the abortion ruling. “I want to see Joe Biden doing fundraisers for the DLCC and the DGA.”
The Democratic fundraising eco-system typically rewards social media stars, those who appear on popular liberal shows, like Rachel Maddow, or candidates who go viral online. That’s exceedingly difficult for candidates in races that don’t draw much attention away from home, like most legislative contests.
Meanwhile, big dollar donors have historically donated to national candidates, or groups focused on the presidency or Congress.
Still, some Democrats bristle at the suggestion that down-ballot races don't get enough attention.
Sam Newton, a spokesperson for the governors association, said it has its own success story to tell. Democratic candidates in key states saw major donation surges after the court decision, he said. The group has also closed a 2-to-1 fundraising gap with Republicans that existed less than a decade ago, reaching parity last year.
Planned Parenthood is part of a joint effort with the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America and EMILY's List, which supports women running for office, that plans to spend $150 million up and down the ballot in the 2022 midterms, said Jenny Lawson, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes.
Governors' races will be a major focus, she said, citing Michigan and Wisconsin, in particular, where decades-old laws banning abortion are still on the books. (Michigan's law dates to 1931; Wisconsin's to 1849.) Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, both Democrats, are facing tough reelection battles.
“Those governors have stood in front of these Republican legislatures who want nothing more than to ban abortion and they have said ‘no,’" said Lawson. “These governors are on the front line, and we need to protect them.”
But others are skeptical that the effort will trickle down outside of high-profile races.
Litman said some party donors are warming up to the idea of giving to down-ballot contests. But there remains a culture in the party, particularly among megadonors, of chasing the “bright, shiny object,” she said. Republicans, meanwhile, treat political giving as a “business investment — you get your judges and tax cuts” and “you spend money patiently knowing it will pay off,” she said.
“We have to balance our short-term immediate electoral goals with a long-term mission to win back these seats,” Litman said.
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