Riding high (despite a Red Ripple) in 2022

published on 01 December 2022

The Red Ripple 

The highly anticipated “Red Wave” of 2022 didn’t happen. It was barely a red ripple. Most post-midterm analyses have highlighted several key factors that contributed to this disappointing outcome for Republicans, among them being:

  1. many candidates campaigned on issues that the average voter didn’t care about
  2. concerns over the “electability” of Republican candidates
  3. the overturning of Roe v. Wade

These factors may very well have cost Republicans the overwhelming victory they expected on Election Day, but instead of exclusively looking at what went wrong for Republicans this year, it’s also worth taking a look at what successful Republican candidates did right.

Two states saw something akin to legitimate red waves, Florida and New York. Given that New York is one of the bluest states in the country, it’s curious how they were one of 2 states to pull off what Republicans across the country failed to do. That being the case, New York is the state worth analyzing most, and looking at 2 specific victories in Lean-D congressional districts provides some interesting insight for those who ask the question: “what did successful Republican candidates do right this year?”

Fundraising issues were another serious problem for many Republicans. This is evident in certain Senate races, like Arizona, where the fundraising gap between the Democrat and Republican candidates was quite wide.

While looking at fundraising operations for successful Republican candidates in New York, what clearly stood out was the significance of the large individual contributions. NY-03 and NY-17 provide strong cases for the use of major donor fundraising services by future candidates.

George Santos joined a number of other New York Republicans this year when he won his race for the U.S. House of Representatives. This wasn’t Santos’ first rodeo. In 2020 he ran for the same seat, raising just under $660k and losing to Democrat Tom Suozzi, 55.9% to 43.5%. Suozzi massively outperformed Santos in fundraising that year too, raising over $2.9 million.

This year, Santos was an electoral juggernaut, raising over $2.7 million and defeating Democratic opponent Robert Zimmerman with 54.2% of the vote, compared to Zimmerman’s 45.8%. Zimmerman raised a similar amount as Santos, yet Santos’ margin of victory is nearly a complete inversion of his 2020 run.

We can probably attribute some of his success to Lee Zeldin’s impressive run for governor of New York, but for a candidate to pull off what Santos pulled off in NY-03 requires more than a strong gubernatorial candidate at the top of the ballot, it requires a formidable fundraising operation.

In an election that was supposed to be a “red wave”, but was decisively not, it’s worth analyzing how the Republicans who did win (especially in Democratic leaning districts) succeeded where so many others failed.

Republican Mike Lawler won his Congressional race in NY-17 against DCCC Chair Sean Patrick Maloney. This was another upset in a Lean D district, this time against a powerful incumbent. In this case, Maloney raised nearly $5 million while Lawler raised just over $1 million, but Lawler won, 50.6% – 49.4%.

Breaking down where donations came from for both candidates, one thing stands out: large individual contributions made up the largest percentage of their overall money raised. For Maloney, large individual contributions made up 58.18% of his total money raised, and for Lawler, 59.89% of his total money raised came from large individual contributions.

Looking back at NY-03, we see the same thing. The largest chunk of money raised by George Santos (34.5% of total money raised) came from large individual contributions. For his opponent, Zimmerman, this was also true, though the percentage was much larger (75.06%).

Common Thread

We saw in NY-03 and NY-17, both (slightly) Lean-D districts, that the largest sum of funds came from large individual contributions. If either Lawler or Santos hadn’t focused on major donor fundraising, it’s entirely possible that they wouldn’t have won their seats. Some of their success should probably be attributed to other major factors like redistricting and a strong gubernatorial candidate at the top of the ballot, but the large individual contribution factor can’t be ignored. The importance of this isn’t just the observation that we repeatedly see the largest chunk of funds coming from major donors, it’s why relying on fewer donors can benefit your campaign. If most of your fundraising efforts are dedicated to chasing $20 here and $100 there, it’ll take significantly longer to raise sufficient funds for the pricey cost of a winning campaign. You’ll be wasting one of the most precious resources of a campaign: time

Key Takeaways 

Something future candidates should remember going forward is that a strong major donor fundraising operation can help drag a candidate across the finish line. Even in NY-17, where the incumbent was a powerful figure within the Democratic Party, and was able to secure nearly 5x the funds as his opponent, Lawler still won narrowly. With large individual contributions comprising the majority of total money raised by a candidate, they don’t have to spend as much time fundraising, and can instead focus their efforts on other key aspects to a successful campaign.

Imagine how difficult it would be to secure the same amount of money that any of these candidates raised primarily through small individual contributions instead of large ones, while simultaneously running a successful ground operation - traveling across the district, attending events, holding rallies, meeting voters, etc… a great deal of valuable time would be wasted. Primarily relying on fewer donors who give a lot of money means more time can be spent campaigning.

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