Andrew Janz’s turn in the spotlight came one Friday early this month, and he didn’t have to do much to earn it.
The Fresno prosecutor challenging Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) raised more than $100,000 over a two-day period last week simply by standing against the man behind “the memo." By Saturday, Janz’s Twitter page was on the screen of grass-roots Democrats across the country. By Monday, he was touting endorsements from liberal groups like End Citizens United.
For legions of low-profile and first-time Democratic candidates desperate to break through in a hyper-saturated political media landscape, Janz’s experience was an instructive example. And it was a final confirmation that their fundraising environment is now increasingly reliant on that kind of long-shot, surprise, superstar moment. That means House wannabes around the country are now desperately working with their teams to try to generate their own breakthrough — a very difficult to manufacture.
Those moments can be simple windows of time corresponding to the news cycle, like the one that benefited Janz. But they are more often the result of a campaign stunt or plan. Wisconsin ironworker and organizer Randy Bryce became an instant celebrity within the party with a June announcement video that described his mother’s struggles with multiple sclerosis and called out his opponent, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
In August, it was Amy McGrath’s turn to break through. She released a spot describing how she knew she had wanted to be a fighter pilot since age 12, and how at 13 her congressman told her women couldn’t serve in combat, while her senator — Mitch McConnell — never responded to her. Standing in front of a jet, McGrath explained that she then wrote to every member of both the House and Senate’s armed services committees about the policy, before enrolling in the Naval Academy and successfully spending 20 years as a pilot.
Once those candidates have achieved grass-roots credibility with their opening gambit, often on social media, that frequently means they’ve tapped into a reliable money stream — which makes the model that much more attractive to candidates all over the country. A full eight months after his initial splash, Bryce over the past weekend raised north of $130,000 in response to Ryan’s since-deleted tweet celebrating a $1.50-per-week raise for a school secretary in Pennsylvania. Roughly half of Bryce’s windfall came in increments of $1.50.
“A decade ago, you could only get known if the media amplified what you were doing, because there was no [other] real way of communicating. So a part of this dynamic is a function of the fact that the gatekeepers no longer control the ability to communicate with the donors. Second, you have not just an energized Democratic base, but almost a desperate Democratic base,” said McGrath campaign manager Mark Nickolas. He watched as his candidate’s August launch video propelled her to immediate grass-roots stardom, earning over 1 million views in its first 72 hours online.
By the end of the year, she had raised over $1 million — far more than most first-time House candidates — on the back of support from roughly 16,000 donors, three-quarters of whom gave her $50 or less, said Nickolas.
It’s not quite new for Democratic candidates to raise serious campaign money in spurts based around individual moments. Bernie Sanders raked in millions on primary nights during 2016’s presidential race, former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander became a fundraising phenomenon after releasing a 30-second video in which he spoke straight to the camera while assembling an AR-15 rifle blindfolded as he ran for Senate that year, and 30-year-old Jon Ossoff raised over $23 million in his brief suburban Atlanta special election as an avatar of the Donald Trump resistance last June.
But never before have so many relatively obscure candidates in otherwise unnoticed local races come to hope so openly for such moments to propel them into mainstream, nationwide legitimacy.
Whether through a video or social media campaign, the candidates’ goals are almost always to pass a threshold of trustworthiness with the small-dollar donors they’ll need to power their efforts. While the traditional $1,000-per-head, in-person fundraising event still makes up much of the backbone of most Democrats’ financing programs, that’s a difficult model to replicate in more obscure races in conservative areas.
And while many candidates in battleground districts have been flooded with money, it’s still hard for most slightly-longer-shot wannabes — especially given the historic glut of anti-Trump Democratic candidates in races across the country.
“Because of the Trump effect, [Democratic candidates] are trying to harness all of that Democratic energy,” said Mark Putnam, the ad maker behind videos including McGrath’s and Kander’s. “Occasionally, with the right intersection of a federal race, a good story and a nationally significant moment or opponent, you might be able to capture lightning in a bottle.”
In most cases, the Democratic candidates who have benefited from that kind of splash are running in uphill battles, either against prominent Republicans or in deeply GOP-friendly territory — imbuing their candidacies with national resonance for a party base eager to fund some victories. Janz, for example, has been mightily out-raised by Nunes, and his race is seldom thought to be actually competitive, even with the incumbent a national lightning rod.
Bryce, too, is a serious underdog, running against one of the country’s most powerful fundraisers in a district Ryan has held for two decades. But Bryce seized the opening created by Ryan’s huge unpopularity on the left: In his first year running, he scored high-profile progressive endorsements and raised over $2.5 million.
For McGrath, catching fire was largely a product of the boogeyman role played in her opening spot by the similarly unpopular McConnell. Using that card early was necessary for a candidate who is also an underdog in her own primary. Opening her campaign, McGrath found the local political landscape frozen by the potential candidacy of Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, so she needed a way to tap into a different source of campaign cash and support.
Using the little money she had raised, she shot the video with Putnam. Then, when Gray eventually did enter the race in December, there was little change at all in the pace of her small-dollar donations, which were coming from activists around the country, not local machers.
Now, rank-and-file candidates around the country are desperately seeking ways to attain that level of national resonance, which strategists warn is not as formulaic a process as it may seem.
“Honestly, most videos don’t raise enough to pay for themselves,” warned Putnam. "It’s exceedingly difficult to do, and candidates should have realistic expectations about what is possible.”
That difficulty hasn’t stopped rank-and-file candidates from ordering up clips of their own, on the off chance that something sparks and their bonanza moment arrives. Ad makers and operatives from across the party said they’ve been inundated with requests from candidates.
“One of the things we found in the Bernie campaign is you have to put out a lot of content: Some things become big hits, and some things don’t,” added Julian Mulvey, the longtime Democratic ad maker who was the creative director for Sanders’ television ads in 2016. Mulvey said he and his team have been experimenting with 5- or 6-second clips — which are novel, cheaper to create and easily shareable — as one kind of alternative.
“The hardest thing is you occasionally get on a conference call, and somebody wants to order up a viral hit. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work like that.”