In 2016, Texas Democrats couldn’t find a serious challenger to take on Republican Rep. Pete Sessions in the Dallas suburbs, and they watched in frustration as Rep. John Abney Culberson outspent his Democratic opponent by $1.1 million.
This year, Democrats are fielding a much more robust set of candidates, with nine already looking to take on Mr. Sessions. One of them has raised $900,000, and two have collected almost $1 million between them through Feb. 14.
Mr. Culberson, a Houston-area Republican, has raised almost $1.2 million over that period, but the eight Democrats looking to run against him have collected a combined $3.4 million.
Similar scenarios are playing out across the country: Democrats are fielding serious challengers in Republican strongholds, and party donors are ponying up major cash to make them competitive in a year when control of the House is legitimately on the line.
“This time around, Democrats have been able to recruit really talented recruits to run for Congress,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “It was like pulling teeth to get anyone to run in 2012, 2014 and 2016, and Democrats were often left with whoever could pay the filing fee.”
Democrats need to net about two dozen seats to capture control of the House, which has been in Republican hands since the tea-party-fueled tidal wave of 2010 gave them 63 more seats.
Democrats talk wave
Plenty of signs indicate that Democrats are on a path to big gains this year.
Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, said Republican challengers in 48 percent of 2010 races had raised at least $100,000 by the end of 2009 — a good yardstick, he said, for measuring challengers’ viability.
For Democrats this year, 45 percent of their challengers cleared the $100,000 threshold by the end of 2017.
In 2015, it was just 15 percent, and only 24 percent hit the mark 10 months out from the 2013 election.
“At the end of 2009, a large number of Republican candidates were ready to challenge in Democrat-held districts and not many Democrats were choosing to run in Republican districts, and that was a harbinger of the GOP wave to come in the fall,” Mr. Malbin said. “This year, there are as many Republican districts with potentially strong Democratic challengers as there were the other way around in 2010, and these two years stand out from all the others.”
Mr. Sessions is set to take on the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary, in which two former Obama administration officials have emerged as tops in the money chase. Edward Meier raised more than $913,000, and Lillian Salerno collected $431,000 through mid-February. Colin Allred, a lawyer and former professional football player, has pulled in more than $542,000.
The winner will have eight months to unify the party and replenish their campaign coffers ahead of the general election.
In Mr. Culberson’s district, Alex Triantaphyllis, a cofounder of a mentoring nonprofit for refugees in Houston and a former employee at Goldman Sachs, raised more than $1 million last year.
Not too far behind is Elizabeth Fletcher, a lawyer with $860,000 raised, and Laura Moser, an activist who has raised $765,0000.
Last one standing
Before they face Mr. Culberson, though, the Democrats will have to battle one another — and divisions between the party’s establishment and liberal activists are already emerging.
Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm for House Republicans, said much of the Democrats’ money will be burned before the party can even get to the general election.
“Democrats are in the midst of bruising primaries that promise to zap their candidates of critical resources,” Mr. Hunt said. “This problem is so severe the DCCC felt the need to attack a Democratic candidate in an open primary and, as a result, a new war between the progressives and the D.C. establishment has been ignited.”
Tyler Law, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the enthusiasm and energy on the Democratic side will carry the candidates to victory.
“Democratic candidates across the country are out-hustling and out-organizing Republican incumbents, many of whom have not faced a competitive challenge in a very long time and are struggling to find those old campaign muscles,” Mr. Law said.
In Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, Republican Rep. Dave Brat could face his first well-financed challenge since he won the seat. Democrat Daniel Ward brought in $552,000 through the end of last year — nearly matching Mr. Brat’s $600,000 tally — and Abigail Spanberger raised $386,000.
In Virginia’s 10th Congressional District just outside Washington, eight Democrats are vying for the chance to unseat Rep. Barbara Comstock. Four of the Democrats have raised more than $600,000, including Alison Friedman, a political newcomer who has raked in $1 million.
In Washington, Democrat Kim Schrier pulled in nearly $600,000 in her bid for the seat of retiring Rep. David G. Reichert in the 8th Congressional District in the eastern part of the state. Four other Democrats have raised over $100,000 — though Republican Dino Rossi was leading the entire field with $1.3 million.
In Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District, former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick and Matthew Heinz led a Democratic fundraising chase as of Dec. 31 — with $750,000 and $340,000 respectively — in the race to replace Rep. Martha McSally, a Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate.
The sole Republican in the race, Lea Marquez Peterson, has raised almost $220,000.
The Center for Responsive Politics says Democrats running for the House have raised a total of $313.5 million so far, while Republicans have raised $268.1 million.
In 2010, at the end of the two-year cycle, Republican House candidates had outraised Democrats $570 million to $521.1 million.
The next big test this year will be the March 13 special election in western Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, where Democrat Conor Lamb has outdistanced Republican rival Rick Saccone on the fundraising front.
But outside groups have invested millions of dollars on Mr. Saccone’s behalf and will likely have to be more selective with their limited resources for the November election.