While much of our political discussions these days revolve around personality — and personal behavior — something less superficial is going on that will quietly play a far more important role determining election outcomes 51 weeks from now.
It’s a familiar topic in U.S. politics, but draws less attention during these national election bye years.
Internally, both parties are seriously handicapped by factional feuds revealing profound ideological rifts dividing their bases. This is most apparent among Republicans who finally won control of both houses of Congress but can’t control their genetic instincts to fight each other over political purity versus pragmatism. Witness, the Obamacare repeal debacle.
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In the crucial area of money, however, the Republican and Democratic parties have shown opposing strengths that must muddy any honest 2018 election prognostications.
Surprisingly, President Trump’s often argumentative, abrasive tweets that bother so many, especially in the GOP establishment, have actually proven to be quite effective fundraising tools. Recited by fundraisers, the tweets are well-received by supporters as candid insights into the unorthodox president’s thinking. And they’ve fueled an historic flow of donations into the Republican National Committee.
“We don’t have to guess how the president would speak about an issue, because Americans hear directly from him on Twitter,” said an RNC spokeswoman.
Trump’s loyal base is a distinct minority hovering around 40 percent in polls, but its members back their man with big bundles of small donations. Since Trump’s inauguration, $113.2 million has flowed into the RNC, largely from new donors.
And for the first time, the contributions from small donors — those giving $200 or less — add up to more than those from big-time donors giving thousands of dollars.
So far this year, the RNC has averaged nearly $5 million a month from small donors and $3.7 million from big ones.
As one result, the RNC ended the third quarter with $44 million in the bank. The Democratic National Committee endured a bitter chair-ousting last year and chair leadership fight this year and still reels over the rigged Clinton ticket’s stunning loss. It had only $7 million on hand. That committee recently fired its newly-hired fundraising director.
However, when it comes to congressional fundraising, the fatter wallet is in the other pocket. Democrats, fueled by anti-Trump animus and the undoing of Obama era regulations and programs, have given more to their committees than Republicans, unhappy over their members’ lack of legislative accomplishments, have to theirs.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has raked in nearly $4 million more than its GOP counterpart, while the equivalent Democratic congressional campaign committee outraised its GOP equivalent, $81.4 million to $72.6 million.
Taken together, however, the trio of GOP committees have $97 million on hand while Democrats have only $54 million left.
Of course, money itself is not what’s important. It’s what the parties do with the dough that matters — and when. As they did in the 2006 successful seizure of congressional control when the Republican president was unpopular, Democrats are recruiting fresh faces, especially moderates and veterans. They’re especially focused on House districts won by Republicans while Hillary Clinton took the presidential vote there.
The party of a sitting president has lost House seats in 36 of the last 39 midterm elections, according to Larry Sabato of the Center for Politics. Losses averaged 30 seats. But Democrats need only 24 to restore the speaker’s gavel to Nancy Pelosi.
In the Senate though, Democrats must defend 25 seats, Republicans only eight.
With its money the Republican National Committee was able to hire a bevy of new state directors, who’ll be organizing crucial states for the midterms and then be available with experience for the 2020 presidential cycle.
The RNC also continues its heavy spending in mobilization and voter ID tech, investments that won’t show results until election day, Nov. 3, 2020. A surfeit of cash also enables a party to launch a barrage of campaign advertising early.
That’s what President Barack Obama did in early summer 2012 to define Mitt Romney as a rich, heartless plutocrat before the Republican could afford a defensive ad campaign. It worked.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm