COVID-19 not slowing giving to Iowa’s congressional races

While experts say the economic impacts of the coronavirus will shape who is able to donate to campaigns, candidates are not seeing a shortage of cash just yet.


Hannah Kinson

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, talks about her personal struggles during the Iowa GOP Reception at Hughes Family Barn in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.

Rylee Wilson, Politics Reporter

While most of the nation’s focus is on the novel coronavirus pandemic, candidates for federal races in Iowa have seen an increase in campaign donations from January, but political scientists say there is potential for depressed donations in future months.

Federal Election Commission filings showed the amount of money given to candidates did not significantly slow down for Iowa’s races. Most candidates received more donations in March than in January and February, when Iowa politicos were focused on the nation’s quadrennial kick off to the presidential-nominating race.

Eleanor Powell, an associate professor of American politics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said giving in March may not show the full impact of the virus, and reports from later in the year may show a more significant drop in donors.

Powell said although smaller donations may drop as individuals have less extra cash to give to candidates, giving from industries and corporate interests may increase.

“Various companies, and political action groups, corporate interests — they are financially stretched, but they might want to have access to members of Congress to try to influence what’s happening with the relief legislation,” Powell said. “I could imagine representatives from industries that are hit particularly hard, like the airline industry or hotel industries, might maintain or increase contributions.”

Even as businesses and schools transition their work online, Powell said donors could be less inclined to substitute virtual alternatives for in-person fundraisers.

“It’s tough to know how these things will translate to a virtual world — whether people will be satisfied with Zoom fundraisers and Zoom conversations as an alternative,” Powell said. “Maybe they will be an acceptable alternative to donors, or the politician and the donor may be uncomfortable with a more recordable format — it’s less conversational and less off-the-record format.”

John Green, the emeritus director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said donations that come from in-person fundraisers are usually much larger than those given online.

RELATED: Campaigns continue virtually through COVID-19 pandemic

Because social distancing makes high-dollar fundraising gatherings impossible, Green said there may be a decline in larger gifts.

“Part of the reason that people give is they like to have contact with candidates and party leaders, even if it’s just to shake their hand and wish them well, sometimes it’s because they want to have connections with them, if they end up winning the election,” Green said. “Smaller donations are much less personal in nature, so the internet and telephone and mail solicitation end up working very well.”

Green said while people may be shorter on cash during the economic crisis, some may be more interested in contributing because of the turbulent political climate brought on by the virus.

“You could imagine a lot of people who maybe wouldn’t be inclined to contribute, but they’re mad as hell about the bad economy and want to do something about it — they want a new president or a new governor,” Green said. “There’s a kind of irony — hard times may decrease people’s ability to donate, but it increases the inclination to give.”

Recent data from the Wesleyan Media Project show advertising in presidential, House, and Senate races has slowed significantly over the past few weeks.

Though the decline in volume of advertisements is partly explained by the end of the Democratic primary as Joe Biden became the presumptive nominee, congressional races also showed a drop in advertising.

The data showed that at the end of February, around 12,000 ads for candidates for the U.S House of Representatives aired nationwide each week. By mid-March, the number of advertisements was close to zero.

Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, said there could be some impact of economic factors on the drop, but the change of the political climate around the virus has also had an effect.

“On the one hand, it may be more difficult to raise money at this point, leading to a drop in advertising,” Ridout wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan. “On the other hand, potential advertisers may believe that people’s attention is focused on the coronavirus and not on politics.”

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a left-leaning group which also funds a political action committee to support Democratic candidates, has seen an increase in membership since the beginning of the pandemic, but the organization’s leaders are concerned about funding from larger foundations.

Adam Mason, the state policy organizing director for Iowa CCI, said around 40 percent of the organization’s $1 million annual budget comes from individual donors, and 60 percent comes from foundations.

Mason said he is concerned that foundations with large endowments invested in the stock market may struggle to provide funding on par with grants given to the organization in previous years.

“One of the things that we have heard is because of the crisis moment that we’re in, a lot of the foundations that support organizations like ours that do direct service work, recognize that the need is really great right now,” Mason said. “They likely will continue to make grants this year, but it might impact funding from foundations next year.”

Mason said although he has heard from some current members that continuing to give to Iowa CCI may not be possible because of economic circumstances, the organization has seen a slight increase of new members over the past month.

“We’ve actually had new members signing up and new volunteers coming in because they’re socially distancing, they’re staying at home, but they’re angry at the lack of leadership from our president and from our governor, and they’re looking for ways to get involved,” Mason said.

Data for campaign contributions from the FEC is available only through March 31.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds shuttered certain businesses March 17, declaring a public-health emergency for the state. Since then, she’s directed a myriad of other businesses in waves to close to the public.

Fundraising numbers through the second quarter of the year will be available in July.

Only itemized donations can be broken down by the month the donation was given, so smaller, unitemized contributions are difficult to track and are not included in these totals.

Republican incumbent Senate candidate Joni Ernst raised $1.3 million in itemized individual contributions to her campaign committee in March, up from $405,000 in February and $842,000 in January, according to FEC filings.

Melissa Deatsch, a spokesperson for Ernst’s reelection campaign, did not indicate if the virus had any impact on fundraising. Deatsch wrote in an email to the DI that “Ernst had the largest amount raised and cash on hand reported at this point in an election cycle in recent Iowa history.”

The campaign did not comment any further on this claim.

Democrats vying to oppose Ernst in the general election also saw an increased number of donations in March. Theresa Greenfield raised $1.3 million in individual itemized contributions in March, an increase from money raised in January and February.

In comparison, in 2016, Democratic Senate challenger to Sen. Chuck Grassley, Patty Judge, had raised $160,000 in March of that year.

Iowa state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Ottumwa, a Republican candidate for Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, raised $190,000 in itemized contributions in March, though $95,000 was a contribution from Miller-Meeks.

In a written statement to the DI, Miller-Meeks’ campaign manager, Austin Harris, wrote that Miller-Meeks was investing in her own campaign in a similar way to President Trump in 2016.

“She recognizes Iowans are feeling a financial pinch during this pandemic and they’re concerned and worried about their future,” Harris said in the statement.

Democratic senate candidate Kimberly Graham, who raised $35,151 in contributions in March according to internal data from the campaign, said fundraising is a challenge.

Graham says her campaign tells supporters to take care of themselves first.

“If you have extra funds after that, please help out friends and family and if you have a few bucks extra after that, we’ll gratefully accept and use them to unseat Joni Ernst and get better leadership for Iowa and our country,” Graham wrote in an email to the DI.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to more accurately reflect the fundraising numbers of Kimberly Graham.

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