The Republican Governors Association heads into a crucial election year having outraised its Democratic counterpart $50.3 million to $28 million in 2013, thanks largely to donations from corporations and billionaires like industrialist David Koch.
Koch, hedge fund chief Paul Singer, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, and Leslie Wexner, CEO of the Limited Brands, each donated more than $1 million to the group last year while tobacco company Reynolds American, Koch Industries and health insurer Wellpoint each contributed more than $500,000, according to Internal Revenue Service records posted Friday.
The cash advantage is welcome given the challenges facing the RGA’s leader.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the RGA chairman, is embroiled in an ongoing scandal in his home state that could make it hard for him to bring in cash and votes in a year when 36 governors’ races are on the ballot.
With members of his party calling for him to step down, Christie may have trouble matching the Midas touch of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who raised a staggering $87 million to help the party capture five new governorships in 2010.
In addition, two of the RGA’s most reliable and generous donors — Texans Bob Perry and Harold Simmons — died in 2013. Perry was the RGA’s most generous benefactor, contributing more than $12 million over the past five years, half the total in 2010 alone.
While the RGA will likely still outraise the Democratic Governors Association, it will have to contend with a motivated union political machine that combined with the DGA actually accounted for more outside spending than the RGA in 2012.
And money certainly doesn’t guarantee success at the ballot box.
“You can’t just buy these elections,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “There are all sorts of other factors that go into it.”
The early read on 2014 elections is that the Democrats are better poised to win back a few of the governorships they lost in 2010.
Recent polls show that fewer than one in four Pennsylvania voters believe Republican Gov. Tom Corbett deserves a second term, while 46 percent of Florida voters prefer Democratic-challenger (and former Republican governor) Charlie Crist to incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Maine’s GOP Gov. Paul LePage, meanwhile, faces a three-way race without a clear-cut favorite.
“The Democrats definitely have some seats to pick and choose from where they have a real chance of winning,” said Lou Jacobson, the deputy editor of fact-checking website PolitiFact and a gubernatorial handicapper for Governing magazine.
The most vulnerable Democrats, meanwhile, appear to be Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, according to recent polls by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling. Arkansas, where Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe is stepping down due to term limits, is also a toss-up.
Democrats’ advantage going into this election year is in part a logical byproduct of Republicans’ success in consolidating power in 2010. The GOP controls 29 governorships across the country and 22 are being contested this year.
“There’s just naturally going to be more targets for the party that doesn’t hold quite as many seats,” said Kondik, of Virginia.
Even so, he said that with 29 of the 36 elections featuring incumbents, there’s likely to be less change than in 2010, when only 13 incumbents were running.
The RGA and DGA are what's known as "527" groups. They can accept unlimited donations from labor unions, corporations and individuals, but cannot make donations to federal candidates. They can, however, have an impact on the states, where campaign finance rules are often much looser.