The answer, in this case, is “when you can’t spend it.”
I’m referring to the maximum allowable individual contribution to a Congressional candidate, which is $2,900 for a primary campaign and another $2,900 for the general election. Candidates can collect both amounts before the primary, but they aren’t allowed to spend the second $2,900 until after the primary.
Well, in most cases it’s $2,900 twice. Some give the full $2,900 for the primary and some lesser amount for the general. All gifts are notated “Primary” or “General” in Federal Election Commission filings. But the gifts earmarked “General” still count towards a candidate’s total haul and cash on hand.
Should it? It’s arguable, but it’s the rules. Let’s set up a second category for primary dollars only and call it “effective cash on hand.”
This is kind of splitting hairs in the case of Republican Senate candidate Christina Nolan, who is the overwhelming favorite to win her primary. As reported previously, $37,700 of her cash on hand cannot be spent until the general election because nine of her donors gave more than $2,900 apiece. But at least she will get to spend that money… eventually.
That is decidedly not the case in the Democratic primary for U.S. House. It appears to be a close and lively contest among three leading candidates: Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, and state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale. One of them will get to spend those general election dollars; the other two will not.
Nonetheless, each of the three accepted donations earmarked for the general election campaign. Why did they do so? Possibly to get a leg up on general election fundraising, assuming primary victory. But it’s also a great way to boost your fundraising numbers.
Say you’ve got a max donor who really likes you. Why not have them write two $2,900 checks up front? Your numbers look better, which helps get you favorable headlines and convince other donors that you’re a serious contender.
First, here are the cash on hand numbers for each candidate as of March 31.
Ram Hinsdale: $218,961.
It looks like a reasonably close contest between Balint and Gray with Ram Hinsdale significantly behind. Ram Hinsdale actually raised the most money in the first quarter, but she’s been spending at a rapid clip and declared her candidacy weeks after her rivals.
Next, the figures for earmarked general election donations.
The Balint campaign received $15,550.
Ram Hinsdale took in $30,760.
Molly Gray? $53,850.
Now, let’s look at effective cash on hand.
Ram Hinsdale: $188,201.
It’s not so close, is it? The gap beween Balint and Gray swells from $28,229 to $66,529. As for Ram Hinsdale, her effective cash on hand reflects the problem with her campaign so far: She got a late start and she’s burning cash much faster than her rivals.
Is it enough to decide the race? Not at all. Gray has plenty left in the bank and has shown she can raise money. Ram Hinsdale has a lot of catching up to do, but she had a very strong first quarter and can be expected to keep up her pace.
That said, and adding the usual caveat that fundraising is only one aspect of a successful campaign, it begins to look a little like Becca Balint has edged out in front. Not a decisive advantage by any means; it’s way too early for that.
Maybe that’s why Gray repeatedly targeted Balint in their first debate. Tacit acknowledgment that Balint is the apparent leader? That’s not an unreasonable conclusion.