Democrats’ unprecedented fundraising in Central Valley House races this year is fueled in significant part by the support of well-heeled donors in Silicon Valley and San Francisco. The cash influx has helped boost these Democrats’ visibility and kept them competitive with the GOP incumbents, who can attract big checks from political action committees and other special interests.
But it also has a downside: opening them up to attacks from their Republican opponents that they are aligned with Bay Area liberals rather than their more conservative districts. That association can be damaging for politicians in the Central Valley, where many residents are skeptical of their wealthy neighbors on the other side of the Coastal Range.
“People are always suspicious of money having an interest behind it,” said Professor Thad Kousser, chair of the political science department at the University of California, San Diego.
Democratic challengers Josh Harder, T.J. Cox, Andrew Janz and Jessica Morse have all raised more in itemized donations (donations of $200 or more) from residents of San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties than they have from their own districts, in some cases, colossally more.
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Harder, who is challenging Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, raised roughly $860,000 from Silicon Valley and San Francisco, according to an analysis of campaign finance records. That’s more than 30 times as much as the $27,000 he raised from the Modesto-area district. Cox, who is running against Rep. David Valadao of Hanford, raised $111,000 from the Bay counties, compared to $1,000 from district residents.
Republicans have taken notice. “If you want to be an elected official someday, you’ll have to talk to local voters, not just Bay Area donors,” the California Republican party Tweeted at Harder last week.
Denham — who has raised more than $300,000 from the district — and his GOP allies consistently refer to Harder, a onetime Silicon Valley venture capitalist, as “Bay Area Harder.”
Valadao’s campaign has also talked up the fact that Cox has raised far more from the Bay Area than from the 21st district, which runs south and west of Fresno.
Democrats point out that Republicans are raising significant portions of their overall campaign funds from political actions committees, many of which are backed by corporations.
“There is a clear difference between Josh and Congressman Denham — while Josh has pledged not to take a single dime from corporate PACs, almost 70 percent of Congressman Denham’s funds have come from corporate PACs and special interests,” said Harder’s campaign director, Chelsea Brossard. Denham has raised $1.8 million from PACs for his election campaign. Valadao has raised just over $300,000.
While Harder rejects corporate PAC donations, he has received sizable amounts from employees of tech companies like Google, Facebook and Uber. He ranked third among all House candidates in fundraising from the internet sector, and second in donations from venture capitalists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The simple reality for Democrats is that one of their best opportunities to counter Republican incumbents’ financial edge comes from the Bay Area. Silicon Valley, specifically, represents some of the party’s most fertile fundraising ground in the country. The Central Valley most certainly does not.
Poverty rates are much higher than average in the region, particularly its southern portion, the San Joaquin Valley. Many of the wealthy donors in the area are involved in agriculture, which tends to be a Republican-leaning constituency. Local voters “who support Democrats are by and large working men and women. Those folks just don’t have the money to make contributions to political candidates,” said Darry Sragow, publisher of the California Target Book, which provides nonpartisan campaign data analysis.
Sragow told The Sacramento Bee that Democrats running for office in the area “are always having to deal with the political risk of raising money outside the district. But if they are unwilling to shoulder that risk they’re just not going to win.” Indeed, Democrats challenging Denham, Valadao and other Central Valley Republicans did not raise significant amounts of money from district residents in 2016 or 2014, either, data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows.
Central Valley Democrats aren’t the only ones raising a small fraction of their contributions from their home districts. Janz, a Fresno County prosecutor, has raised just 12 percent of donations of $200 or more from his district. But he’s still raised about $50,000 more than his opponent, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes. Nunes, a national political lightning rod, has raised just 4 percent from the district, with half of his donations of $200 or more coming from outside the state.
Republican Rep. Tom McClintock is also raising a smaller proportion of his itemized donations from his district than his Democratic challenger. McClintock has received just over $136,000 — or 19 percent — from 4th District donors, which includes parts of Fresno and Madera Counties but also wealthy counties like Placer and El Dorado. That’s $100,000 less than Morse, the Democrat, who has raised more than 21 percent of all donations of $200-plus from the district.
She’s raised even more — nearly 40 percent of her itemized funds — from Silicon Valley and San Francisco.
The large sums of money flowing from the Bay Area to Morse’s campaign represent a stark contrast with McClintock’s last few opponents, who raised almost no money from outside the district and were not able to mount credible challenges. And it’s part of a larger trend among Democrats across the country, who are drawing huge sums from donors eager to counter President Trump. That’s part of the reason the gap between local Democrats’ in-district and Bay Area fundraising is particularly wide this cycle.
Since Democrat Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election, despite winning 2.86 million more votes, there’s been a concerted effort by liberals “to redistribute those voters and that passion and that money” to win control of the U.S. House, said Kousser.
Groups have sprung up like Swing Left, which matches activists in safe Democratic districts with competitive House races nearby, helping them participate in canvassing, phone banking and fundraising.
According to Swing Left Executive Director Ethan Todras-Whitehill, a major chunk of the group’s members are based in California — roughly 100,000 people, he estimated. And the group has helped raise more money for Harder’s campaign than any other in the country. In fact, seven of the ten congressional contests at the top of Swing Left’s fundraising “leaderboard” are in California. Cox’s race against Valadao ranks fifth.
“There are so many people who are upset about Trump and … are looking for ways to make an impact,” explained Todras-Whitehill. Donating to candidates who could help Democrats win back a majority in the House is one way to do it.
Kate Irby of McClatchy’s Washington, D.C. bureau contributed to this report.