Wednesday, July 21, 2021

An Early Look at 2022's NC US Senate Race Fundraising

By Whitney Ross Manzo

Everyone knows fundraising is critical to the success of political campaigns, and in the post-Citizens United world of campaign finance, the amount needed to be successful is ever-increasing. In the 2020 election cycle, over $14 billion was spent, more than doubling the previous record holder of the 2016 election cycle! Part of that spending was for the two most expensive Senate races ever, in Georgia, where both the Republicans and the Democrats spent enormous sums in order to secure partisan control of the US Senate. There is every indication that the 2022 US Senate race in North Carolina will also be a record breaker for two main reasons.
First, the Democrats only "control" the US Senate due to the Vice Presidential tiebreaker. This means that, in order to get control of the chamber back, Republicans need to hold onto their current seats (like Richard Burr's) and flip only one other seat. On the other side, Democrats would love to actually control the Senate, and they're eyeing North Carolina as a potentially flippable seat. Both parties view North Carolina as essential to their future ability to pass legislation, and therefore will expend significant effort in order to secure the seat.

Second, even if control of the Senate weren't on the table, political science research demonstrates that open seat races like this one involve much higher spending than races where an incumbent is running to keep their seat. When an election involves a sitting elected official vs. a challenger, the incumbent will enjoy name recognition, so they don't have to spend much to make the public aware of who they are and what they stand for. Incumbents also rarely face a primary battle, so their spending is low until the general election. Additionally, challengers historically have a tough time raising enough money to make the race truly competitive, which means incumbents get to spend less defending their seat. 

When a seat is open, on the other hand, all candidates hoping to win the seat must first expend lots of effort and money on getting their name and platform in front of the public during the primary election. Then, the winners of each party's primary must spend even more money during the general election. Lastly, parties and outside organizations are willing to spend more in an effort to win open seats, because these races are naturally more competitive. So, for every candidate and at every stage, open seat races involve much higher levels of spending.

Even though the election isn't for another year and a half, the race is well underway in North Carolina. Democrats Jeff Jackson and Erica Smith have already begun their 100-county tours of the state, and the NC GOP convention in June generated a lot of attention when it was "hijacked" by a dramatic reveal of former President Trump's endorsement of Ted Budd (the majority of the room had backed former US Representative Mark Walker in its straw poll). 

Early fundraising is crucial to the ability of a candidate to not only stay in a race, but also to generate enough buzz that potential voters begin to recognize the candidate and talk about them, which in turn brings in even more money. A candidate in a crowded primary race that can point to significant early support is more likely to win endorsements from outside organizations, as well as scare off any additional challengers who might still be on the fence about throwing their hat into the ring. So, even though it feels entirely too soon to be thinking about 2022 given so many of us are still hungover from the 2020 election, it's worthwhile to peek at who is gaining and who might be falling behind in order to get a better sense of who the strongest contenders are.

2022 US Senate Race Fundraising Receipts as of 6/30/21

Democratic side


Republican side


Jeff Jackson


Mark Walker


Cheri Beasley


Pat McCrory


Erica Smith


Ted Budd


Rett Newton


Kenneth Harper


Richard Watkins


Benjamin Griffiths


Lee Brian


*Note: This chart includes only those candidates who filed Q2 reports with the FEC.

The chart above details fundraising receipts as of the end of the second quarter. It appears that Democrats Jeff Jackson and Cheri Beasley are dominating their primary race, while the Republican side is more divided between Mark Walker, Pat McCrory, and Ted Budd. 

It's important to note that these are total fundraising receipts, which can obscure changes in where money is going. For example, Jeff Jackson currently enjoys a little over $700,000 advantage over Cheri Beasley, but he also began his campaign three months earlier. This means all of Beasley's fundraising is from the current quarter, while Jackson's fundraising slowed down a bit after she entered the race (he started the second quarter with close to $1.3 million). 

Similarly, on the Republican side, former governor Pat McCrory and US Representative Ted Budd raised all of their money during the second quarter because they only declared their campaigns in April, while Mark Walker joined the race in December 2020. Walker took in by far the least amount of money this quarter ($203,000) than the other two Republican leaders.

Everyone else running in these two primaries should be concerned. Because the 5 candidates with over $1 million in fundraising have come out to such an impressive lead, it will be exceedingly hard for anyone else to catch up. True believers might still donate to their campaigns, but most donors will be strategic and donate to one of the front runners in order to increase their chance of having donated to the eventual party nominee. 

Dr. Whitney Ross Manzo is an associate professor of political science at Meredith College, where she is also assistant director of the Meredith Poll. She tweets at @whitneymnz.