Despite year-of-the-woman buzz, female candidates lag behind men in fundraising

Karla Young signs up volunteers in during an Aug. 4 canvassing event in Santa Clarita for Katie Hill. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Dania Maxwell

Lauren Baer, a former Obama administration foreign policy adviser, has been buoyed by a string of endorsements from Democratic Party officials and national House leaders in her first-time bid for Congress.

But for all the attention on her race in South Florida – one of the most competitive in the country – Baer has one significant disadvantage in her campaign to unseat Republican Brian Mast: money.

“I know that we have a message that resonates in our community,” said Baer, who had raised $1.6 million – less than half as much as Mast – by the end of June. “But I also know that my viability, at the end of the day, depends on the amount of money that exists in my campaign coffers.”

Even as a record number of women run for office this year, female congressional candidates overall are lagging behind their male counterparts when it comes to pulling in campaign cash, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal campaign finance reports.

Men running for the House had collected almost 17 percent more on average than their female counterparts by the end of June, The Post found in its examination of candidates who showed viability by raising at least $50,000.

One driving factor: Many female candidates lack relationships with longtime political donors who work in traditionally male-dominated industries such as finance. That is a particular challenge for women this cycle, because the majority are newcomers to politics and, like any non-incumbent, must build donor networks from scratch. But their task is often more difficult, some female candidates said, because of skepticism about their potential, based on their gender.

“The assumptions that are built into our political system is that the candidate is male,” said Baer, who said she has frequently been asked by donors and supporters about who is caring for her young child.

One group of female candidates who outraised their male counterparts: Democratic women seeking office in districts that lean left – a sign of the enthusiasm in the base to support women this year. In those districts, women collected an average of $97,000 more than men, The Post found.

In Minnesota, for example, state legislator Ilhan Omar, a Somali refugee who would be one of the first Muslim woman elected to Congress, handily outraised two of her three Democratic challengers – including a male opponent – before winning her primary Tuesday.

Female candidates in some marquee toss-up races are also seeing a flood of cash.

That has been the case for Katie Hill, a 30-year-old nonprofit-group executive from Santa Clarita, Calif., who is seeking to dislodge Rep. Steve Knight, the last Republican who still holds a congressional seat in Los Angeles County.

Hill had raised $2.5 million to Knight’s $1.7 million by the end of June – a remarkable feat in a district that has been held by a Republican for 25 years. In a sign of grass-roots enthusiasm for her bid, one-quarter of her campaign cash came from donations of $200 or less. Such donations made up just 1.4 percent of Knight’s haul.

Hill, who is bisexual, has attracted backers from an array of constituencies, including LGBTQ advocacy groups, a Los Angeles-area women’s network and Hollywood celebrities such as actress Kristen Bell, whom she met through her work advocating for the homeless.

“I met people who took me under their wing, and then it sort of spread . . . into this Venn diagram of relationships that you have to keep building and building,” Hill said in an interview after a recent campaign event in her district. “That is something I couldn’t have really anticipated before I was a candidate – how much the momentum builds on itself, like a snowball.”

But such a dramatic financial windfall is the exception for female candidates.

Men raised an average of $849,000 by June 30 – according to the most recent data available – while women pulled in an average of $728,000, The Post found.

Republican women posted a higher average of $941,058, largely driven by huge hauls by GOP incumbents and millions in contributions that have poured into several high-profile races.

Overall, female candidates in general did better in fundraising in the 63 competitive House races tracked by the Cook Political Report but still trailed male candidates by an average of $63,516, The Post found.

The gap reflects a widespread hurdle that could hobble women hoping to make history in November, largely because just 71 of the 476 women who launched House bids this cycle are incumbents, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics, a nonpartisan research center at Rutgers University.

In Illinois, nonprofit executive and first-time candidate Betsy Dirksen Londrigan has raised $1 million less than Rep. Rodney Davis, the three-term GOP incumbent she is challenging. She said she has logged nearly 50,000 miles on her car driving around the 13th District to make her case to voters and donors.

“We don’t have any Hollywood actresses in Springfield, Illinois, but we do have a lot of people who are equally as excited and equally as committed,” Londrigan said.

Londrigan, who co-founded Women Rising, a group working to support female candidates, hopes to draw on the donor networks of her three male primary opponents, who she said have all offered to help her raise money.

Still, for all the inspiration she gets from the stories of first-time female candidates, Londrigan said she worries that voters may overestimate their chances of winning in November.

“I don’t want a repeat of 2016, frankly,” Londrigan said. “I don’t want anyone making the assumption that the woman in the race is going to win or that they can stay home that day.”

One factor that has slowed fundraising for some women: competition.

Of the 272 female candidates still in the running for House seats, 207 are Democrats, according to the tally by the Center for American Women and Politics.

That has led to crowded primary contests in many states – and prompted one major potential ally on the left, Emily’s List, to hold off giving its endorsement in some races until the general election.

The advocacy group, which supports female candidates who back abortion rights, is sitting out the 18th District in Florida, where Baer is facing off against former naval officer and lawyer Pam Keith in the Aug. 28 Democratic primary.

Baer said that the absence of early backing by Emily’s List “disadvantages one as a candidate, not having that stamp of approval.”

Emily’s List considers a number of factors when weighing whether to endorse early – mainly whether the “bones of the campaign are strong,” according to spokeswoman Julie McClain Downey.

“We consider having this many women running a good problem,” she added.

Meanwhile, many female candidates on the left have pledged not to take contributions from corporate PACs, which have long been reliable and early sources of campaign cash.

“That does obviously create more of a challenge,” said Kara Eastman, a nonprofit executive who has raised $1 million less than incumbent Republican Don Bacon in Nebraska’s 2nd District. “We are dedicated to this being a people-powered campaign.”

There are some signs that female candidates on the left are generating more enthusiasm among grass-roots donors than men.

Women running for federal office, on average, received contributions from 10 percent more first-time donors this cycle than male candidates, according to ActBlue, a Democratic fundraising platform. They spurred an even greater increase in first-time female donors, drawing donations from 23 percent more than male candidates.

“Folks are legitimately excited by all the first-time candidates who are running,” said Erin Hill, ActBlue’s executive director. “We’ve never seen this type of influx of growth.”

In Connecticut, Jahana Hayes, a history teacher and political novice, raised nearly $40,000 in less than 24 hours after clinching Tuesday’s Democratic primary – mostly in small donations under $200, according to her campaign.

For Katie Hill, that excitement is translating into donations and volunteers. At a recent training session for volunteers before they went door-to-door to speak to voters, several supporters said they were drawn to Hill because she has proved her viability with her robust fundraising.

“I’m out here because I want to make sure that communities are aware there are other options,” said Ashley Orozco, a 27-year-old campaign volunteer who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “The Future is Female.”

Hill said she is sharing the lessons she has learned about fundraising with other female candidates and hopes to see mentorship programs develop to help other first-time candidates build donor networks. In May, Vice News aired a 30-minute documentary featuring Hill and her campaign team’s fundraising strategies, including how her team leveraged her Emily’s List endorsement to broaden its network of wealthy female donors in the Los Angeles area.

“I want this to get out. I’m not shy about my ‘secret’ about how we fundraise. I’ve talked about it from early, early on,” Hill said. “I want to learn from other women who can look at this and share what did they do and, frankly, what we could have done better.”



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