Six months of heated competition by their presidential candidates led Republicans in Kentucky to make campaign donations early and enthusiastically. Now, the state’s Democratic Party donors have snatched the fundraising momentum.
Last year, Kentucky residents gave $898,581 to the campaigns of Republican candidates, compared with $493,489 to Democrats — 82 percent more — according to the Federal Election Commission. Individual donations in January were evenly split between the parties’ candidates, but Democrats stepped up in in February, out-giving Republicans by 24 percent.
Laurie Rhodebeck, an associate political science professor at the University of Louisville, said the wide-open Republican field last fall and the frequency of debates spurred contributions for GOP candidates.
“That competitive element stimulates interest, and one form of interest is campaign contributions,” she said. “Maybe even as late as the end of December, I’m not sure Democrats would have had the sense that there was a truly competitive race there, and if it’s not perceived as especially competitive, I think the contributions will be lower.”
Of course, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has livened up the primary by winning contests in Michigan, Colorado and Washington state. Among individual donors in Kentucky, Sanders has received more money than any other candidate — of either party — in 2016. The $97,539 he raised through Feb. 29 was nearly a third of all direct contributions made by Kentuckians during that time.
In Kentucky’s total haul, Sanders trails Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul. Clinton, with $388,274 in the bank, has still raised 72 percent more money than Sanders in Kentucky. Paul raised $366,179 through Feb. 29. He dropped out of the race earlier that month.
Sanders has raised almost 10 times the amount that Republican front-runner Donald Trump has received in Kentucky. Unlike Trump, who is mostly self-financed, and candidates supported by parties and political action committees, Sanders is gathering steam from small — even $20 — contributions.
“Twenty dollars may not seem that much to many of us, but people want to feel that they’re not wasting that money, and to see Sanders doing well and hanging in there — his enthusiasm never flags — I think that sends a message to contributors that their money will be well spent,” Rhodebeck said.
The individual contributions do not include donations from PACs and party committees. Individuals are limited by law to giving $2,700 per election. Some PACs and party committees have $5,000 limits.
The Republican caucus, which Trump won, took place March 5. The Democratic primary will be on May 17.
“Based on these (contribution) numbers, I’m thinking that Sanders is likely to do quite well,” Rhodebeck said. “Will he win? I’m not sure I want to go out on a limb there. Clinton did well here in 2008 against Obama, but Sanders is a very different opponent.”
Reporter James McNair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 814.6543.
This story was reported by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.