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What does Beto O'Rourke's $38 million fundraising haul actually tell us?

The number is eye-popping in the extreme.In the three months between July 1 and September 30, ...

Posted: Oct 12, 2018 8:38 PM
Updated: Oct 12, 2018 8:38 PM

The number is eye-popping in the extreme.

In the three months between July 1 and September 30, Beto O'Rourke (D) raised $38.1 million for his challenge to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R). That's an absolutely staggering number for any candidate but especially so when you consider O'Rourke is a) not personally wealthy and has not dumped millions of his own cash into the race and b) he accepts no donations from political action committees. To put it into some context, Jeb(!) Bush raised $35.5 million in the entirety of his 2016 presidential campaign.

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O'Rourke has now raised more than $61 million for his campaign, which began as something of a lark -- a little-known House member against the runner-up in the 2016 Republican presidential primary in a decidedly conservative state -- but has rapidly become significantly more competitive, according to a bevy of public polling.

In the immediate aftermath of O'Rourke's fundraising bombshell, there was a clamor -- especially among Democrats -- to draw big conclusions about What It All Means.

"The lesson for Democrats from @BetoORourke's massive fundraising number is that you don't need to compromise for corporate PAC and lobbyist money if your run an inspirational, inclusive, and authentic grassroots campaign," tweeted Dan Pfeiffer, a former communication director in the Obama White House. "The money is there for the right candidate and campaign."

Tweeted Caitlin Mitchell, the chief mobilization officer at the Democratic National Committee: "This is what building a genuine relationship with your small-dollar donors looks like: When they're bought in, the possibilities are endless."

All of these Big and Important conclusions about O'Rourke's fundraising leave out one sort-of important fact: He's not actually beating Cruz.

Cruz's lead in the Real Clear Politics polling average is now 7 points. Cruz has never trailed in any poll conducted in the race. And there's hasn't been a publicly released poll since early September that shows O'Rourke any closer than 5 points. Informed Democrats acknowledge that while O'Rourke closed to within mid-single digits of Cruz in the summer, that closing has ceased of late.

So. On the one hand, we have a candidate in O'Rourke who is going to raise more money than any non-self-funding Senate candidate (or incumbent) in history. On the other, he is a decided underdog to actually, you know, win.

The most obvious conclusion is that fundraising ≠ success -- at least not always. And that idea isn't exactly new. All you need to do is look back at the 2016 Republican primary-- where Trump spent among the least of any of the candidates -- for evidence of that fact.

O'Rourke is running for Senate in a state that hasn't had a Democratic Senator since Lloyd Bentsen in the early 1990s. In a state in which every statewide elected official is a Republican. In a state where no Democrat has won a statewide race since 1994. In a state where Jimmy Carter is the last Democratic presidential candidate to win.

None of that changes the remarkable accomplishment of raising $38 million in one three-month period. But it does put something of a damper on the idea that O'Rourke is the future of the Democratic Party. Typically, losing Senate candidates -- which is what, at least as of today, O'Rourke looks like -- don't wind up as the "future face" of any party. (For more on the O'Rourke boom -- and the resultant fatigue -- make sure to read this from Politico's Jack Shafer.)

While an O'Rourke loss -- even a very well-funded one -- would be bad news for the narrative of O'Rourke as the next Barack Obama, it wouldn't be without lessons for Democrats.

The big one is that an attractive and charismatic candidate can generate lots and lots of grassroots excitement, and money. The second lesson is that a candidate with a message that resounds with people not only in his or her state but outside of it as well can raise tons of money. Third, authenticity -- or at least the appearance of authenticity -- matters. O'Rourke's appeal is rooted in the sense that he is just a normal guy trying to be as honest and upfront about this country and his plans for it.

The things about all of those lessons is that we already know them. Likeable candidates with messages that resonate and who are perceived to be authentic by voters can raise a lot of money? No kidding! Also, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west! And the New England Patriots are probably going to win the AFC East this year!

Fundraising matters but it doesn't win a race for you -- particularly in a state as tilted toward Republicans as Texas. And candidates who are good-looking, candid and great communicators tend to create excitement for their candidacies. And that excitement begets fundraising dollars. Lots and lots of fundraising dollars. But we already knew that.

O'Rourke's fundraising is, without question, hugely impressive. it just might not be all that predictive or revealing of, well, much of anything.

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