Female Candidates Break Barriers, Except When It Comes to Money

Rashida Tlaib, running in a tough six-way Democratic primary for a House seat in Michigan and positioning herself to be the first Muslim woman in Congress, was thrilled when a man who champions Muslim candidates across the country donated just under $1,000 to her campaign.

Then she found out he had given three times as much — $2,700, the maximum allowed under federal law — to Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim man in Congress.

“It’s not like you can call and ask why,” Ms. Tlaib said in an interview. So she did what she always does and wrote the donor a handwritten thank you note. When she won the primary and was all but assured of winning the seat — she has no Republican opponent in November — he maxed out to her, too.

Women have broken many barriers in this midterm election cycle: Record numbers have run for Congress and record numbers have won primaries, including a record number of women of color like Ms. Tlaib.

Women are newly asserting themselves as donors, too, often helping female candidates; while donations from women to Republican men have dropped off a cliff since the election of President Trump, donations from women to Democratic women have shot up, reflecting a trend the Women’s Philanthropy Institute calls “rage giving.”

But women who run for office are still struggling to raise as much as men, particularly if they are Republican, or challenging incumbents, or running in places where the opposing party has a big advantage — as is the case with many Democratic women this year. Men are still making the large majority of political contributions, and male candidates are still raising more money.

Female candidates have relied on different or new ways to raise money, getting more in small donations, from individual donors and from women. Still, even in a year when fervor for a “blue wave” has allowed many competitive female candidates to raise staggering amounts of money, it has taken them longer to raise it.

“Women work it,” said Ms. Tlaib, a former state legislator. “We work twice as hard. At some point that may change, but we have to work twice as hard.”

Among Democratic primary winners on the ballot for House seats, women have raised an average of $1.4 million, $185,000 less than the average for men, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Traditionally, women haven’t raised as much money because they haven’t had the same network of business connections, or the fortunes to self-fund their campaigns. That’s still true among the top fund-raisers.

In the House, for example, Mikie Sherrill, a Democrat running for an open seat in the New Jersey suburbs, has raised $7.5 million, more than any woman running, according to a list compiled by the center earlier this month. Five male candidates have outraised her — all Democrats — but three of them are largely self-financed; the top man on the list, David Trone, running for a solidly Democratic open seat in Maryland, contributed nearly $16 million of his total $16.5 million haul.

Ms. Sherrill, by contrast, has spent just $1,800 of her own money.

Female candidates have also benefited from heightened interest among voters and donors in supporting women and outsider candidates this year; many of them have put out inspirational videos that can set off a flood of small-dollar contributions. Amy McGrath, who raised the second-highest amount among female House candidates, and like Ms. Sherrill is a Naval Academy graduate and former military pilot, announced her campaign for a Kentucky seat in a video that cast her as a fighter. She has raised 24 percent of her money from donors who gave $200 or less.

The Republican incumbent she is challenging, Representative Andy Barr, has raised just 4 percent from small donors; 40 percent of his contributions come from political action committees; only 4 percent of Ms. McGrath’s do.

“Women are finding ways around the incredible war chest advantage that members of Congress who are incumbents bring to any race they run in,” said Sarah Bryner, the research director at the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics.

“We’re approaching equity in terms of campaign fund-raising,” Ms. Bryner said, “but there are still specific groups having a harder time.”

That includes the many Democratic women who are running in solidly red House districts where they are unlikely to win. In Texas, for example, Jennie Lou Leeder has raised nearly $79,000 compared with the Republican incumbent’s $2 million.

Among non-incumbent Republicans on the ballot for House races in November, women have done slightly better, on average, than men; they have raised about $46,000 more, with an average of $565,402.

Still, they have raised far less on average than the Democratic candidates they are running against. In California, for example, Young Kim, seen as one of her party’s best hopes, has raised $2.5 million. Her male Democratic opponent, Gil Cisneros, has raised nearly five times as much.

Many women in competitive races are being outraised by men who are unlikely to win. Andrew Janz, a Democrat running in a solidly Republican district in California, has raised $8.2 million, more than any of the Democratic women running in several California districts where the party is favored to win.

The elections in 2010 were a mirror of this year: then, a Democratic president was facing his first midterms, the Republicans set their record for the number of women running for Congress — and Republican men outraised Republican women.

“If you’re a woman running for office, you come in, they grill you on your policies, they grill you on everything, and then they give you $1,000,” said Sarah Chamberlain, the chief executive of the Main Street Partnership, which supports moderate Republican candidates. “A man goes in, they grill him a bit, but they also talk sports and other things, then they give him $2,700.”

Many Republicans saw a potential star in Ashley Nickloes, an Air Force combat aviator, lieutenant colonel in the National Guard and mother of four who was running for an open seat in a solidly Republican district in eastern Tennessee. She was the only woman in a seven-way primary where the leading contender was the Knox County mayor, more widely known as an avid Bigfoot hunter.

Ms. Nickloes entered the race in the spring and struggled to raise money against candidates she called “good ol’ boys who knew all the right people.”

“I felt like I wanted to beat myself against a brick wall sometimes, the number of times I heard ‘retribution,’” she said. “People would say, “We fear retribution, this person has such strong backing.’ That was extremely frustrating.”

Ms. Nickloes raised nearly $150,000 in individual contributions, and Ms. Chamberlain’s political arm came in with nearly $100,000 a few weeks before the primary — allowing Ms. Nickloes to produce and air one television ad. She came in third, behind two men who had raised more money.

One opponent told her she had polled at just 1 percent name recognition two months before the primary. “That tells you what that commercial did for me,” she said. “If we had just had that money earlier, we would have been unstoppable.”

Democratic women have taken advantage of a continued backlash against President Trump, who won office with the largest gender gap on record. Forty-three percent of donations to Democratic women who won primaries in House races, and 47 percent for the Senate, have come from women, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Representative Jacky Rosen, for example, the Democrat challenging Senator Dean Heller in Nevada, has eight times as many female donors as Mr. Heller, raising a total of $5.4 million from women, according to the center’s analysis.

Overall, women have donated about $126 million to Democratic women in congressional races this year, according to the center, and $85 million to Republican men. That’s a flip from 2016, when women donated $106 million to Republican men and $75 million to Democratic women.

Despite the increased giving from women, men still contribute most of the money — 65 percent in congressional campaigns, according to the center.

But female candidates are trying to change that. In September Representative Lois Frankel of Florida led five other Democratic incumbents to start Elect Democratic Women, a political action committee to raise money for candidates who support abortion rights.

Earlier this month, the Women of South Florida Victory Fund held a fund-raiser featuring Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House leader, to benefit four women seeking House seats.

One of those women, Lauren Baer, a Harvard and Oxford-educated lawyer who worked in the Obama administration, has showcased her wife and their young children in her campaign literature. That, she said, has helped her raise money not only from politically connected friends, but from many women and members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community.

Earlier this month, a woman involved in her campaign invited 40 other mothers to her house for a fund-raiser at 8:30 in the morning. Many women brought their young daughters.

“None of them have previously been engaged in political giving, but they are energized to see someone like them running for office, and they want to show that example to their daughters,” Ms. Baer said. “What that is showing is the power of female candidates to build new political coalitions that will redefine the shape of our parties and our electoral politics for decades to come.”

More recent fund-raising numbers suggest that donors give more to women once they become more serious candidates. In the second quarter, which ended in June, there were 16 men and four women on a list of the top 20 non-incumbent fund-raisers for House races compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics; in the last cycle, which ended after the primaries, nine women made the list.

“We’re still new to the arena,” Ms. Tlaib, in Michigan, said. “I think when people start seeing more women run and win, more will invest.”