The former Texas congressman entered the race with a glowing cover story in Vanity Fair and the expectation that he would be a formidable contender. But the total his campaign announced Monday night was far less than the $9.3 million he raised last quarter and placed him toward the back of the pack.
It's the latest sign that two distinct tiers are emerging in the primary: one that will have ample resources to build a national operation and get its message out and another forced to make difficult financial decisions and triage limited cash.
"We've been pretty up front about the dynamics of this race. It changes every week," O'Rourke's campaign said in a fundraising email to supporters last week. "Sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down. Sometimes you're Hootie and sometimes you're the Blowfish."
The top five Democratic fundraisers collectively raised $96 million this quarter, putting them within striking distance of the $105 million raised by Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee for the president's reelection. That has eased worries that lackluster totals last quarter were a sign the party would struggle to stockpile cash for the general election fight.
Pete Buttigieg led the second quarter field with $24.8 million, a jaw-dropping sum for a candidate who entered the race months ago as the little-known mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He was followed by former Vice President Joe Biden, who raised $21.5 million. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts rebounded from a mediocre first quarter and came in third with $19.1 million. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont posted $18 million, while Sen. Kamala Harris of California reported raising about $12 million.
But the outlook is grim for many others. Some, like O'Rourke, took in less than they did last quarter. Others were essentially treading water. O'Rourke has struggled to reclaim the magic of his losing 2018 bid against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, which brought him closer to winning statewide than any Democrat had in years. He set a fundraising record in that race, bringing in over $80 million.
Yet unlike last quarter when his presidential campaign touted his totals in advance, his staff waited until just hours before the Federal Election Commission's Monday night reporting deadline to announce how much he had raised.
"The second quarter was about raising the bar and exceeding expectations," said Dennis Cheng, who was the finance director for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. "Top-tier candidates will need to pull in eight-figure quarters to stay competitive and run effective campaigns on a national scale."
That's a difficult task in a field that has drawn more than 20 candidates. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York raised $2.3 million — about $500,000 less than last quarter. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee improved his numbers but still pulled in only about $3 million.
Thanks to a strong Democratic debate performance, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro more than doubled his previous haul. But his $2.8 million still puts him toward the back of the pack. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota both brought in enough money to forge ahead. But Klobuchar, who raised nearly $4 million, and Booker, who raised just a little more, performed worse than they did during the first quarter.
One of the most immediate challenges for candidates who have struggled to gain traction is notching enough donors to qualify for the next round of debates. The Democratic National Committee has increased the thresholds to reach the fall debate stage, leaving a wide swath of the field scrambling to qualify. To secure a slot, candidates have to reach 2% in a handful of polls while racking up contributions from at least 130,000 donors in at least 20 states.
That requires raising a significant amount online from low-dollar donors, a metric that is touted as a sign of a candidate's support from the party's grassroots. However, developing a serious online fundraising operation costs a lot, forcing some to decide whether to plunge money into digital consultants and social media advertising, or hire staff and build a national operation.
Indeed digital consultants and online advertising topped the list of spending by many lower-tiered candidates during the second quarter, FEC records show. But those who build out their network of small-dollar donors aren't just capable of raising money — they are winning over the same party activists needed to turn out the vote, organize and proselytize, said Robert Zimmerman, a donor and Democratic National Committeeman from New York.
"Not too many top donors from Bel Air, Manhattan, Scottsdale and Palm Beach are going to be knocking on doors through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire," he said. "But small-dollar donors and grassroots supporters, they build the campaign."
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