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Trump's 2020 reelection machine builds cash lead over crowded Democratic field

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs for travel to Texas from the White House in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs for travel to Texas from the White House in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s latest campaign fundraising haul highlights the growing financial dominance of the president’s reelection machine over a crowded Democratic field that still is taking shape.

In the first three months of 2019, Trump’s committee raised $30 million — his best fundraising quarter since his election, according to the campaign and federal records.

That brings the total sum raised by his 2020 campaign and two affiliated fundraising committees to $130 million, the most ever raised by an incumbent president at this point.

Meanwhile, 10 Democratic primary candidates together raised $68.8 million from Jan. 1 until March 31, according to the campaigns and federal records. At this point in the 2008 election cycle, eight Democratic candidates had together raised $85.4 million.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont reported the biggest haul last quarter, with $18.2 million, followed by $12 million raised by Sen. Kamala Harris of California and $9.4 million collected by former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas. Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., raised $7 million — a large amount for a newcomer to national politics.

Four U.S. senators trailed Buttigieg: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts ($6 million), Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota ($5.2 million), Cory Booker of New Jersey ($5 million) and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York ($3 million).

Behind them were former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who raised $2.2 million, and former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro, at $1.1 million.

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In all, 16 major candidates began raising money last quarter for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. All must file their campaign finance reports to the Federal Election Commission by the end of Monday.

Democratic strategists acknowledge Trump has built a formidable reelection operation with a large war chest. His campaign said it entered April with $40.8 million in cash.

But Democrats said that a fundraising advantage does not necessarily translate to victory, noting that Trump was outraised by his GOP rivals and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Joel Benenson, who served as a top strategist for the campaigns of President Barack Obama and Clinton, said fundraising will pick up once clear front-runners emerge.

“Nobody would contest that there are advantages to incumbents,” he said, adding that Trump has ramped up his fundraising through tweets and rallies that galvanize his base.

“The challenge for Democratic candidates is how much grass roots activism support” will coalesce around their candidacy, Benenson added.

For now, Trump’s fundraising pace is giving him an edge over the large pool of Democratic challengers that will take months for them to match.

Unlike past presidents, Trump began building his reelection machine shortly after taking office, bombarding supporters with fundraising solicitations and whipping up supporters at Make America Great Again rallies.

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That has helped drive a large stream of donations that his campaign and the Republican National Committee are using to expand their volunteer programs across the country and develop a massive data operation.

The Trump campaign was among the largest political spenders on Facebook and Google advertisements during the 2018 cycle, according to a study by Tech for Campaigns, a group that helps Democratic candidates with digital outreach. That gives it the opportunity to constantly improve its ability to target and persuade voters online while some Democratic candidates are still hiring digital staff.

Trump has successfully tapped into both a loyal base of small-dollar donors and wealthy backers who are giving six-figure contributions to his campaign and the party. In addition, his allies are raising large donations for the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action and other big-money groups.

That provides the president an added boost over Democrats, who are facing pressure from voters on the left to eschew support from wealthy donors and super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.

The focus by Democrats on low-dollar online donations has increased the pressure on them to hit their fundraising goals through texts, emails and tweets. Average online donations reported by campaigns ranged from $18 to $43.

Compounding the financial challenges for the Democrats is the weak fundraising by the national party, which is working to rebuild its donor base after a fractious 2016 primary.

Meanwhile, the RNC is continuing to haul in cash, thanks to the power of the Trump fundraising list.

The RNC brought in $45.8 million in the first quarter, the campaign said, its highest total for a first quarter in a non-election year.

The Democratic National Committee’s filings were not yet made public Monday afternoon, but the committee had $8.6 million in cash by the end of 2018, compared with the RNC’s $23.5 million from the same reporting period.

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The Trump campaign did not say how much money it spent during the first quarter. In the fourth quarter of 2018, amid heavy fundraising and campaigning for the midterm elections, Trump’s campaign spent more money than it raised.

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