Rep. Barbara Lee faces fundraising titans in the race for CA Senate seat

Though her decades-long career makes Rep. Lee qualified for the U.S. Senate seat, will her competitors’ fundraising efforts be enough to overtake her for a top-two ballot slot?

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Rep. Barbara Lee will have to raise more money for her U.S. Senate campaign than she’s ever needed in her decades-long career, as she’s up against two fundraising juggernauts. The key question ahead of next year’s all-party primary becomes: Can Lee raise enough money to compete, or at least to make the top-two ballot in November 2024?

Golden State Senate races historically cost on average more than $9.3 million and this race in particular promises to be the most expensive and intensive in history. California is the most populous state and boasts more than 20 million voters. Its varied, individual media markets are among the most expensive in the nation for the sort of television advertising that becomes necessary given the state’s expansive geography. By comparison, other statewide races could cost as little as a few million dollars.

Katie Porter and Adam Schiff have proven they can raise large sums. The most Lee has ever raised is $2 million, and that was for the congressional seat in the East Bay Area that she’s held for 25 years.

“From a comparative standpoint, Barbara Lee doesn’t really have any money starting out with and because her seat has been a safe Democratic seat for as long as she’s held it, she’s never really had to raise the kind of funds that certainly a Katie Porter, who sits in a very competitive seat or even an Adam Schiff, who once upon a time was in a more competitive seat, has had to raise,” said Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst with Inside Elections in Washington.

According to the Federal Election Commission, Lee has raised $1.1 million, spent $101,000 and had $1.2 million in cash on hand as of March 31. Porter had raised $4.5 million, and Schiff had raised $6.5 million by the same date. These numbers give a glimpse of what lies ahead and perhaps indicate who has the financial strength to reach voters in the California election cycle.

Lee has a total of 1,163 donors. The three states that Lee received the highest contributions from are California (939), New York (61), and Colorado (30). Nearly 400 of these donors donated between the amounts of $1,000 to $4,000 to Lee’s campaign.

They are mostly not employed, retired, or self-employed. On the other hand, 29 contributors are employed by universities, two contributors are doctors in Illinois and California, and 16 contributors are lawyers in California, New York or Florida. Lee received contributions from civic leaders including state Sen. Nancy Skinner, Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland, and Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. She also received contributions from Bishop Bob Jackson of Acts Full Gospel Church in California and Pastor Grainger Browning of Ebenezer AME church in Maryland.

On Monday, May 8 Lee announced the endorsement of former Georgia General Assembly House Minority Leader and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. She has also been endorsed by Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, Attorney General Rob Bonta, Treasurer Fiona Ma, Controller Malia Cohen, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, Congressman Ro Khanna; just to name a few.

Porter had 9,102 contributors and Schiff had 7,945. Even supporters recognize Lee is at a disadvantage when it comes to dollars, and analysts looking at the race have identified what she needs to do.

“Barbara Lee knows she can’t run the Senate race like she ran the House race. And I don’t think she plans to. In years past, candidates have found a way to solve the money problem, which is by tapping into this nationwide donor base that has really become activated in Democratic circles from 2018 onward. That’s what Lee needs to do, develop that kind of nationwide fundraising base,” said Rubashkin.

The California Senate race is unique because at least three prominent Democrats are campaigning to raise enough money to land in the top-two primary. Once the candidate makes it to the top-two primary they will then work to secure votes in the general election for a seat that hasn’t been open since retiring Sen. Dianne Feinstein first won in 1992.

This means that with California having a top-two primary system and the nature of voter leaning in the state, the two candidates on the ballot will likely be Democrats in the general election. The top-two primary system puts candidates from any party on a single ballot and the two top candidates regardless of party advance to duel in the November general election.

All the candidates in the race represent different parts of California. Lee, 76, represents the East Bay area which has become one of the most liberal regions in the country. Porter, 49, represents a community in Orange County that is politically divided. Schiff, 62, represents Hollywood and Burbank which is where he lives, but the district also runs north of Los Angeles.

This geographic element shapes the outcome of voter support especially when there’s a looming question of if voters will feel a geographic loyalty to an L.A. or East Bay area candidate.

When Lee announced her candidacy via Twitter on February 21, she proclaimed she has “never backed down from doing what’s right. And I never will.”

“Californians deserve a strong, progressive leader who has delivered real change.#BarbaraLeeSpeaksForMe,” she continued, in a tweet that received 943,800 engagements.

Lee is the highest-ranking Black woman appointed to House Democratic leadership, serving as co-chair of the Policy and Steering Committee. She has said she believes that real change in California is needed in areas such as representation, inflation, the high costs of child care, among other issues.

Democratic Party voters have proven that they value representation. Both Schiff and Porter are white. But, if elected in 2024, Lee would make history joining an institution, which currently has no Black women senators.

“What Barbara Lee brings is that she is the only Black woman in the race. There are no Black women in the Senate. And Democratic voters in recent years have shown that that’s something that they really care about. They care about representation,” Rubashkin said. “This is not acceptable that in a body of 100, there are none. I think that’s going to be a compelling argument for her, not just in terms of voter persuasion, but in terms of building up a donor network.”

While trying to build her network, Lee’s campaign is aware of her financial disadvantage. Lee’s campaign said in a statement she may not have the fundraising prowess of her competitors but that she is capable of raising enough money to place in the top two and move on to the general election.

“The Congresswoman has always said she doesn’t need as much money as her opponents. She just needs enough money to get through the top-two primary. The other candidates in this race can’t buy a decades-long record of progressive accomplishment like Barbara Lee’s. She has the record that her opponents wish they had and Democratic voters want to vote for,” Lee’s campaign reiterated in a statement.

The Lee, Porter and Schiff campaigns did not respond to 12 phone and email requests for comment.

Even though money can be a determining factor in this election, Rubashkin believes that in order to win the California race the candidate must be the full package. The candidate should be able to fundraise, connect with people, and secure votes.

“You want to have it all because you can have the best voting record, you can have the deepest ties, you can have the most kind of consistency or the most kind of calibrated ideological position relative to the electorate. But if people don’t know who you are, if people don’t know all those things about you, it’s tough to get them to vote for you,” Rubashkin said. “She does have that longevity, because she does have that voting record, and that history in the state.

“And so even though she doesn’t have the money, she’s still a force to be reckoned with,” Rubashkin said.

De’Shawn Woolridge, who is the former Pittsburg Unified School District president and member of the Democratic Club, believes that money is not everything because Lee still has her name that carries weight in the House and the community.

“She may not have the pocketbook for this election. But she does have a name. She’s been in the game for a long period of time with a clue as to people’s knowledge, their stories, and the group she’s targeting,” Woolridge said.

The main reason Woolridge gives as to why Lee has not raised that kind of money for the Senate race is that “she’s been out there in the trenches doing the work.”

Tim Vincent, the President of Brothers of the Desert, which is a nonprofit organization that provides support for Black gay men and allies in the Coachella Valley, agrees with Woolridge on how money is a disadvantage in this race but said it does not count Lee out of the race.

“I think that puts people at a deficit, but I don’t think it puts them out. How much money she has or how much money she’s raising. I mean, that matters for her. But it doesn’t matter to me in terms of my allegiance or my interest in supporting her,” Vincent said.

Vincent supports Lee because of the way she can appeal to the average voter through her personal life story.

In her campaign launch video, Lee described herself as “the girl they didn’t allow in who couldn’t drink from the water fountain, who had an abortion in a back alley when they all were illegal.” She said she “escaped a violent marriage and became a single mom, a homeless mom, a mom who couldn’t afford childcare and brought her kids to class with her.”

Woolridge noted how a lot of campaigns are not always won by who has the most money, but by who can tell the best story about who they are, what they can do, who has a vision of what their state should look like, and who sees the needs of everyday folks.

“And I think Barbara recounts that because not only does she have it, she lived it. So she understands we can go to our office and say, I’m homeless. She understands when you come to her office and say, I’m struggling. And that’s something money could never buy,” Wooldridge said.

Ever since Lee was first elected to the House in 1998, many have viewed her as a fighter for social justice, more so in 2001 when she was the only member of Congress to vote against the Afghanistan war resolution.

Due to Lee’s longevity in the House, she has built connections in the political realm but it has given voters the time to doubt her capabilities because of her age.

“She’s been around for longer than both Katie Porter and Adam Schiff and for some that is a weakness,” said Rubashkin. “I think certainly her age has already kind of come into play with how some people are talking about this race but also the fact that she has such a wealth of political relationships to draw upon as opposed to Katie Porter who is relatively new on the scene.”

Perhaps trying to address people who have made comments about Lee’s tenure and age, she said in a three-minute campaign kick-off video, “For those who say my time has passed, well, when does making change go out of style? I don’t quit. I don’t give up. Come on. That’s not in my DNA.”

Lee’s election would change the Democratic Party because, in prior years, there have only been two Black women holding seats in the Senate: Kamala Harris, who represented California before being elected as vice president, and Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois.

Looking back at last year’s cycle, two Black candidates had the opportunity to change the numbers: Cheri Beasley of North Carolina and Val Demings of Florida. Both Democratic candidates competed in Republican-leaning states that favored their opponents, even though they surpassed them in fundraising.

According to FEC records, Demings raised more than $70 million for her Senate bid as of mid-October, while her opponent, Sen. Marco Rubio, raised slightly more than half of that. In North Carolina, Beasley raised $34 million while her Republican rival Rep. Ted Budd brought in about a third of that. Demings and Beasley have shown how Black women candidates represent more than just working hard to secure votes and funds in trending red states; these women have become the party’s strongest. Demings lost in November by 16.4% in Florida and Beasley lost by 3.2% in North Carolina.

Voters will have the first opportunity to weigh in during the primary election on March 5, 2024. Californians will make their final decision during the general election on November 5, 2024.