Percent of the time an open-seat candidate with the highest contribution total has either won a multi-way primary race outright or advanced to a runoff since 2006.

Campaign cash is one of the best indicators of potential success in contested primary races where at least three candidates, none of whom are the incumbent, are seeking their party’s nomination.

We looked at campaign finance data and election results for 117 open-seat primary races for statewide office, the Legislature and Congress since 2006 that met these criteria:

  • No incumbent in the race
  • At least three candidates on the ballot; and
  • They are running for the incumbent party’s nomination OR we judged it to be a significant race for the other party.

An example of this latter type of race was the Democratic primary for CD7 in 2018. That primary winner went on to win the general election, defeating the Republican incumbent. We ranked candidates based on the total contributions they had collected for the campaign cycle through their 8-day-out reports (state) or pre-primary reports (federal).

In the last seven primary elections, no one outside the top two fundraisers has won one of these primary races outright, and the success rate of the top two fundraisers in reaching the runoff is significantly higher than any other candidate.

Just over three quarters of candidates who finished first in fundraising either won outright (23%) or made the runoff (53%). Almost as many of the candidates who finished second in fundraising made the runoff (50%) but considerably fewer won outright (5%). The candidate with the third most total contributions made the runoff 27% of the time, about half the rate of the top two fundraisers, but only 10% of the time in a three-candidate field.

Farther down, the odds of making the runoff quickly get pretty thin. Just 9% of candidates whose contribution totals ranked fourth out of the field made the runoff, and that number does not improve when there are just four candidates in the race. Just 6% of candidates ranking fifth or lower advanced to a runoff.

Nine candidates with the fifth-most or a lower contribution total have made runoffs in the races we studied, and four of those occurred in primaries with at least 12 candidates. There are four Congressional primary races this year with at least 12 candidates: SEN Democrat (12), CD13 Republican (15), CD17 Republican (12) and CD22 Republican (15). The sheer number of candidates involved in these races can dampen the positive benefit of campaign cash, but making a runoff in spite of significant campaign cash disadvantages usually requires pre-existing name ID, ability to self-fund, regional advantage or, absent any of that, luck.

In nearly three quarters of these races, the candidate who raised the most money also spent the most. Nearly 80% of the candidates who won these primaries outright raised and spent the most out of the field. The news is not all good for these candidates. Seventeen of the 28 (61%) top fundraising candidates who missed the runoff also spent the most money.

Federal pre-primary reports are due tomorrow (Thursday), and state 8-day-out reports are due Tuesday.

©2020 Texas Election Source LLC