Women Running for Office & The Money That Gets In Their Way

Maye-gan Brown

Undoubtedly, candidates running for office in the 2018 midterm elections carried with them memories of the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, an election that left many in shock that an inexperienced political outsider like Donald Trump won the presidency. Trump was granted the fortune of a Republican majority in both houses of Congress during an era in which the “polarization of the Democratic and Republican parties is higher than at any time since the Civil War” (Hare and Poole 2014).  Trump’s presidential victory renewed scholarly questions about conventional campaign strategies long thought to explain electoral outcomes, especially in realms like fundraising and campaign messaging.

The 2016 presidential election was unlike any race we have ever seen before. Traditional notions previously thought to explain the role of campaign finance, power, and the influence of PACS in shaping electoral outcomes were unsettled in 2016. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were political outsiders, seemingly unwinnable candidates, facing considerable opposition against party establishment candidates (namely Hillary Clinton and the significantly financed Jeb Bush).  According to Open Secrets, Jeb Bush received a significant portion of his primary election funds from PACs. Hillary Clinton’s election funds were made up of a significant proportion of large individual donations and PACs. Trump, in contact, financed 75% of his own campaign; Sanders ran without PAC assistance. Did 2018 reflect broader changes in campaign finance?

Given the context of campaign finance in 2016, how did candidates in 2018 raise money? Did men and women running for office fundraise differently? In this chapter, I explore similarities and differences in the ways men and women running for office in 2018 raised campaign funds.

How Did We Get Here?

The frequency of elections and the number of offices in the United States means that our elected leaders are consistently accountable to the American people, making the United States somewhat unique; this also means that campaign funds are even more essential (Kolodny 2016). With concern about dark money and corruption, Americans have become increasingly apprehensive of the operations of politics that is portrayed as a conglomerate of under the table deals and back door exchanges. The 2018 midterm elections happened in congruence with the Mueller investigation charged with investigating alleged campaign finance violations on behalf of the Trump campaign as well any possible illegal connections to the Russian government. The pervasiveness of the investigation sparked a conversation about campaign finance that ever candidate running in 2018 had to be prepared to consider.

The conundrum of campaign finance has been apart of our political discourse for the last few generations. Buckley v. Valeo (1979) overturned previously legislated laws on campaign finance in the 1971 and 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), ruling that some restrictions on campaign spending were unconstitutional (Grant and Rudolph 2003). The 1971 FECA primarily sought to provide more transparency within the legislative process, specifically regarding campaign finance, the four goals being: “prompt and effective disclosure, enforcement of limitations, maintenance of committee records, and the clearing provisions authorizing research in election administration” (Staats, 98). During the Watergate scandal, FECA was invaluable to the acquiring of information regarding the case and the funds involved. A substantial difference between the 1971 FECA and the 1974 FECA was that the 1971 act only limited media spending but would later be broadened to include contributions and organizational expenditures in the 1974 Act (Staats 1976). Buckley v. Valeo asserted that not only were restrictions an infringement on the constitutional rights of the corporations but it also linked campaign spending to political discourse, suggesting that limiting spending would “reduce the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploitation, and the size of the audience reached” (Grant and Rudolph 2003, 454).

Twenty years later in 1996, Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Commission centered around Democrat Timothy Wirth bid for a vacated Senate seat; the local Republican committee purchased radio ads against him, prompting Wirth and the local Democratic Party to call on the FEC to prevent the actions from occurring (Cass, 1998). The case was brought before the Supreme Court and Buckley v. Valeo was used as the basis for the decision, and the free speech clause of the First Amendment was used by the justices as the litmus for political involvement (Grant and Rudolph 2003). Justice Breyer led the charge with stating that there are fundamental differences in funds being given directly a candidate’s campaign and money being used on behalf of a candidate which we see in the organizational sponsored television and radio ads (Cass, 1998). The final ruling stated that expenditures made on behalf of the candidate are individual actors, operating well within their constitutional right to express their political views of support or disdain.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) was monumental as it relaxed previous laws preventing corporations from participating as donors within the electoral process. Quite controversial, the debates surrounding the ruling included pro-regulators who maintain a stance that the allowance of unregulated funds into elections worsen an already existing problem of power imbalance within the political process. On the contrary, anti-regulators appealed to free speech First Amendment rights, claiming such rights extend to corporations, who like Americans also have a voice. One of the beneficial conditions that resulted from the case is that if a corporation desires to donate to a campaign, they can simply donate to an organization that will then donate on their behalf, for example named Patriots for Justice, easily avoiding the requirement of disclosure to the Federal Election Commission (Coates 2012; Christenson and Smidt 2014). While the Citizens United ruling proclaimed a greater declaration of free speech, it created a greater inequality gap for those who may lack the name recognition and political gravitas to stir the necessary support of their campaign, potentially affecting minority and female candidates the most.

Let’s PAC it up Boys

Political Action Committees always existed, but Citizens United v. FEC was the catalyst for the creation of the Super PAC. Super PACs are now widely unregulated and are allowed to donate directly to a candidate or to use their own resources to produce supportive or undermining content regarding a candidate (Boatright 2011). Super PACs are known to give mostly to Senate campaigns but their efforts in the House of Representatives extend through lobbying efforts which have recently totaled $1 billion dollars (Hall and Deardorff 2006). Super PACs serve as gateways for corporations that desire to donate to a campaign while avoiding the requirements of disclosure to the Federal Election Commission (Coates 2012; Christenson and Smidt 2014).

Increasingly secretive, Super PACs are not only the worry of candidates but also sitting elected officials apparent in the case of continual Senate and House Judiciary hearings on the matter. An opening statement in 2012 by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin cites that pre-Citizens United, only 1% of donations came from hidden PAC donations. Post-Citizens United, these increased to 44% of outside spending (United States Senate 2012). Citizens United allows for Super PACs to produce content that expresses support or disdain for a candidate and thereby influencing voters  (United States Senate 2012). Campaign finance has been an issue that has gained increasing bipartisan support, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike agreeing that Super PACS have stirred distrust in the hearts of American people, who once prided themselves on their $200 donation to their favorite candidate now see their contributions as insignificant (Gulati, 2012). Due to the lack of regulations, Super PACs and IECs (independent expenditure-only committees) can be the difference between a winning campaign and a losing one (Gulati, 2012). Elected officials spend each year in office wondering how they can possibly get reelected the next campaign cycle, each becoming more expensive than the last with the costs of advertising, wages, and other campaign expenses on the rise (Gulati, 2012). Executives of Super PACs know how imperative Super PACs are to the continuation of the political process especially as the demand for campaign innovation increases.

As campaigns become increasingly expensive, it becomes more and more difficult for political outsiders to enter the political realm since continual advancement is based on relationships. A candidate can be easily beaten out in the primary because they do not have the establishment backing and PAC support to continue, making the campaigning process even more imbalanced as those who accept PAC support are now indebted to their donors.

Running Barefoot: Women Running for Office

As the political landscape changes, some things never do: women are still incredibly underrepresented making up only 23% of House membership (Pew Research 2019). In a time when America seems to be moving in a progressive direction as we have passed same-sex marriage legislation and the #MeToo Movement has fiercely swept like wildfire from Hollywood to Capitol Hill, society seems to still be unable to grapple with female leadership. Male leadership has been the standard in America since its inception and while many may claim to not have an issue with the idea of female leadership, their implicit biases default to men as the safer and more natural option.

Initially, women are reluctant to run for office in the first place.The general public has socialized women to view their accomplishments through content and not pride, implying their accomplishments are not worthy to be compared to those of their male peers although female candidates are likely to have the same experience with a better success rate. (Adams and Schreiber 2011) Women have been inundated with these images of themselves and as a result they commonly lack the boldness to enter into a field that has exclusively belonged to men, resulting in women pursuing low level tier positions rather than federal ones. This socialization feeds self-doubt and fear into female candidates that they are not capable of attaining higher positions in politics and the belief that their qualifications are not valid. Men are also fed similar images of women which constructs their view of female candidates as “unwinnable” affecting the amount of support they receive, especially financially.

Voters fall prey to the imagery as well, mentioning that they lack confidence in female candidates on “masculine” issues of war and the economy, believing women are better suited for the “feminine” issues of healthcare and equal pay (Hernson, Lay, and Stokes 2003). It is not only the male counterparts that reinforce these marginalized stereotypes, but the political establishment as well. Historically, when women first gained the right to vote both parties committed all of their resources to courting their vote but refused to open leadership positions to them (Dolan, Deckman, and Swers, 2015). Currently, both major parties are still reluctant to recruit female candidates. Campaigns and elections are a numbers game; how much you can raise, how many votes are needed, or how many endorsements can be received.  Commonly, female candidates have to worry about maintaining the impossible balance of femininity and masculinity where they are charged with not being too tough while not being too soft and sensitive.

Women are excluded from the “political pipeline” where candidates are provided the resources to run successfully as a candidate and transition from local to federal office (Adams and Schreiber 2011).  While women are supported when they run for office, it is not with the same ease that their male counterparts are; female candidates are forced to appeal to a wider group of financing sources, often times they are “non-traditional.” PACs will likely support the candidate with the greatest chance of winning, usually the male candidate leaving the female with only a portion of funds and unequal work exertion.

Female candidates, due to the attitudes previously mentioned, are charged with constantly having to discover new ways to raise funds for their campaigns. One being out-of-state donations popularly exemplified in the case of freshman NY-14 Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who, according to the Open Secrets site, raised $70,000 in out-of-state donations of $200 or more.  Desiring to be as distant as possible from similar scandals, many Democratic candidates like Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders embraced the notion of “clean campaigns” which are grassroots based with little to no contributions from PACs, corporations, or special interests organizations. Such rhetoric is not detrimental for Sanders that has built up a reputable career as an independent politician with a platform for the working man and is still able to fund his election primarily through individual donations, while AOC is seen as a young candidate boldly campaigning outside of the political establishment and has not gained the trust of many.

Defined as surrogate representation, “donors seek to promote their distinct ideological, policy, or personal-identity-related preferences by gaining additional representation from many members of Congress rather than simply relying upon representation provided by their district’s member”(Heerwig and Gordon, 2018; Muller and Jordan. 2018). While female candidates are able to equally compete due to out-of-state donations, they must also be careful of the intentions of surrogate representation. Heerwig and Gordon emphasize the difference in motivations between small and large donors: large donors are a vehicle for influencing policy while small donations tends to come from average constituents. Female candidates have to quite often rely on these kind of donations to sustain their campaigns because within their district, they are not deemed the “winnable” candidate.

Research Design

My findings are based on data collected from the 25 most competitive House races, defined as those races within a 6% margin between the winning and losing candidate in the 2018 Midterm Elections. I aim to find essential information about how competitiveness dictates the sources of funds as well as how gender can possibly affect (for better or worse) a candidate’s potential to solicit donors. Financial disclosure, data statistics, exit polls and anecdotal experiences are utilized to further explain these patterns.

The data are organized to allow for comparisons between Democrats and Republicans and to examine gender differences across and within party. I examine average total campaign funds, small individual contributions, and percentage from small individual contributions, Large individual contributions, percentage of large individual contributions, and PAC contributions, and  PAC contributions, candidate self financing, and percentage of funds from candidate self financing. All data are from Open Secrets, a bipartisan campaign finance disclosure sight.


To begin with board patterns in 2018, Democrats raised nearly doubled what their Republican counterparts raised, out-raising them in every category of spending  except PAC contributions.  Among both Democrats and Republicans, 2018 brought heightened attention to small individual contributions, the best way for the average voter to feel involved in their candidates success. The contributions, usually $200 or less, are said by candidates to be the driving force behind their campaigns. Small contributions made up 18.72% of funds among Democrats and 9% among Republicans. Women in both parties relied on these contributions; small contributions accounted for 20% of Democratic women’s funds and 17% of Republican women’s funds.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) defines large individual donation as up to $2,800 per candidate per election cycle. In 2018, large individual contributions made up about  61% of the Democratic campaign finance pool, compared to 48% of Republicans. Large contributions amounted to 58% of money raised among Democratic men, compared to 63% among Democratic women; large contributions amounted to 48% of Republican men’s funds and 47% of Republican women’s funds. These data confirm what Fox and Lawless find, namely that when women run, they raise similar if not more money than male counterparts.

Democrats were less likely than Republicans to self-finance their own campaigns–Republicans on average invested more in their own campaigns by self financing 10% while Democrats only self financed at an average of 5%–and women were less likely to self-finance when compared to men.

PACs (Political Action Committees) are “organized for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates.” PAC contributions made up 8.5% of the total finance pool of the Democratic party, continuing in the range of the of 8% among Democratic men and women candidates.  Among Republican candidates,  33% of campaign funds originated from PACs. This number is 34% for Republican men and 27% for Republican women. During the 2018 campaigns, many Democrats rejected the idea of “corporate money,” since it is often associated in the public mind with special interests and dark money. This is reflected in the small percentage of PAC funding Democratic candidates received compared to Republicans.


Table 1. Total Spending & Small Contributions

Average Total Campaign Funds Small Individual Contributions Percentage of funds from small individual contributions
Democrats $5,956,877 $1,063,549 18.71%
Men $6,327,748 $1,023,173 17%
Women $5,678,723 $1,095,850 20%
Republicans $3,718,300 $411,607 9%
Men $3,508,247 $239,124 6%
Women $4,405,864 $1,015,300 17%

Table 2. Large Individual Contributions & PAC Contributions

Large Individual Contributions Percentage of funds from large individual contributions PAC Contributions
$3,523,126 61.04% $457,568
$3,477,875 58.25% $477,588
$3,577,065 63.13% $442,554
$1,731,985 48% $1,240,639
$1,685,418 48% $1,266,016
$1,894,967 47% $1,147,590

Table 3. PAC Contributions and Self-Financing

Percentage of funds from PAC contributions Candidate Self Financing Percentage of funds from Candidate Self Financing
8.54% $417,829 5.83%
8.92% $941,449 13.04%
8.25% $25,077 1.04%
33% $72,165 10.85%
34% $91,544 12.34%
27% $1,111 0.44%


The 2018 midterm elections saw several political firsts and structural upsets. Despite a unique election cycle and the significant changes in the makeup of Congress, data on campaign finance show patterns similar to previous cycles. The research I conducted reaffirms that we have much further to go as a country until true equality is reached within our politics, at least when it comes to raising and spending money on campaigns. Our democracy’s values are attainable but only through continual accountability and fight for fairness.


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