Republicans benefit from money spent on big-name, long-shot Democrats

Beto O’Rourke has raised $76.5 million in his bid for governor of Texas this year. Stacey Abrams has raised $85 million in her bid for governor of Georgia. When all is said and done, O’Rourke will probably top $80 million and Abrams may raise more than $90 million, so Democratic donors will have given least $161 million and up to about $170 million to two progressive Democrats who are running fairly long-shot races against Republican incumbents in traditionally GOP-leaning southern states.

The GOP benefits from this vast fortune’s being spent on big-name, long-shot candidates instead of closer races. Texas and Georgia Republicans may secretly, or not-so-secretly, hope that O’Rourke and Abrams will be interested in running in 2026, too.

But I will make one small — I mean, best-use-a-microscope small — defense of O’Rourke and Abrams. Just as every candidate has to earn your vote, every candidate has to earn your donation. If another candidate — let’s say, Tim Ryan —  thinks he represents a better investment of finite resources in his open-seat Senate race in Ohio, he has to make that case to Democratic donors, large and small. (Ryan has raised $48 million, the most ever for a Senate candidate in his state, so he’s not exactly doing poorly to begin with.)

O’Rourke and Abrams are absolute masterminds when it comes to persuading Democrats across the country that they can win, and that donating to their campaigns will put them over the top. They’re wrong, of course: As Tom Bevan observes, neither one has ever led any poll in their races. The latest University of Houston survey puts incumbent governor Greg Abbott ahead of O’Rourke 53 percent to 40 percent, and the latest InsiderAdvantage survey in Georgia puts governor Brian Kemp ahead of Abrams 52 percent to 43 percent.

But those two over-covered — and, I would argue, wildly over-hyped — candidates “earned” those donations by getting the average Prius-driving, vegan, progressive Democrat out there to believe in them. From the beginning of the cycle, it was clear that the 2022 election environment was going to be a lot tougher for Democrats than 2018 was, and O’Rourke and Abrams came close — but no cigar — in that more favorable political environment. Somehow, they convinced grassroots Democrats to donate lots of money to them anyway. Either O’Rourke and Abrams are exceptionally persuasive, or grassroots Democrats have exceptionally poor judgment, or both.

Then again, I’m also not sure that many Democratic candidates will be able to plausibly argue that if they just had a bit more money, they would have won in 2022. First, all the money in the world can’t overcome a bad political environment or candidate flaws (just ask Mike Bloomberg). Second, most Democratic House candidates and Senate candidates are outraising their GOP counterparts, and Democratic state-level candidates like governors, attorney generals, and state legislators are not too far behind their GOP counterparts. Between the DNC, DSCC, DCCC, DGA, SuperPACs, and all the rest, there’s plenty of money out there for a promising Democratic candidate.

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