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Beto O’Rourke pulled in a massive fundraising haul — and 2020 competitors are noticing

O’Rourke’s fundraising numbers are an early test of grassroots energy.

Beto O’Rourke Begins First Campaign Swing In Iowa As A Presidential Candidate.
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke shakes hands as he arrives at a packed St. Patrick’s Day party in Iowa.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Beto O’Rourke raised more money than any other Democratic presidential candidate in the first 24 hours after announcing his 2020 bid — but he didn’t have as many donors as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) did.

The Texas Democrat announced Monday that his campaign pulled in $6.1 million in online donations in the 24 hours after his announcement. O’Rourke told supporters in New Hampshire Wednesday that the haul came from 128,000 unique contributors at an average donation of $47 a person, CNN reported. By comparison, Sanders’s (I-VT) presidential campaign said it raised $5.9 million from more than 223,000 donors in the first 24 hours, and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) raised $1.5 million in that time.

The first Federal Elections Commission official quarterly campaign finance filings won’t be public until April. Until then we can’t have a full picture of Democrats’ 2020 fundraising efforts.

But the other Democrats in the race have definitely noticed O’Rourke’s ability to raise money. With more than a dozen candidates in the Democratic presidential primary already, these early fundraising numbers remain one measure of frontrunner status.

On Monday, Sanders’s campaign sent out an email with the subject line: “Bad news: Beto outraised us. Good news: we probably had a lot more donations.” They were right, but that doesn’t change the top line numbers.

O’Rourke’s fundraising numbers are showing he can play big

O’Rourke is touting his fundraising numbers as a clear show of his continued grassroots support.

“In just 24 hours, Americans across this country came together to prove that it is possible to run a true grassroots campaign for president — a campaign by all of us for all of us that answers not to the PACs, corporations and special interests but to the people,” O’Rourke said in a statement.

Like his Senate bid, O’Rourke isn’t taking donations from corporations or super PACs. Being the grassroots candidate was core to O’Rourke’s failed 2018 bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) — with a campaign style, and individual donor list, that catapulted him to national fame and ultimately led to his presidential run. O’Rourke raised a record-breaking $80 million in 2018, and it’s been an open question whether he can replicate that effort in a packed Democratic presidential primary.

But for O’Rourke’s presidential campaign, which drew some negative coverage in its early days, these fundraising numbers prove he can play big — a dynamic perfectly captured by two Politico reports published within hours of each other.

In the first story, David Siders summed up a “rocky start” with “Beto O’Rourke wobbling on policy, offending women with a joke about child care, frustrating local Democrats with his high-handedness and picking bewildering fights with the media.” Critics were questioning whether O’Rourke could survive the rigors of presidential campaigning. Then his team put out its fundraising numbers, and the tune changed. “O’Rourke put any doubt to rest,” Siders and Daniel Strauss wrote.

The numbers also eliminated any inclinations other Democratic frontrunners might have had to not take him seriously.

“If we are going to avoid being outspent, it’s going to take lots and lots of people making individual donations,” the Sanders campaign said in an email to supporters.

In a crowded field, Democrats are looking to prove grassroots support

The 2016 presidential election was an inflection point for money in politics.

Donald Trump pledged to fund his own primary run. And Sanders successfully painted Hillary Clinton as the big money candidate, a reputation that plagued her through Election Day. Sanders denounced super PACs and corporate donations; his claim to fame was that his average donation amounted to $27 (it actually fluctuated a bit).

Since then, Democrats up and down the ballot have adopted Sanders’s approach to campaigning. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) took it one step farther this year, pledging to forgo large-donation fundraisers in the Democratic primary. And while the Democratic National Convention voted against a ban on corporate PAC donations, members changed the rules around primary debates to incentivize grassroots donations.

As Vox’s Ella Nilsen reported, candidates can qualify for the debates if they can receive 65,000 unique donors, at a minimum of 200 unique donors per state, in at least 20 US states. It’s a new path to securing a spot on one of the biggest platforms of the 2020 presidential race; in 2016, getting on the debate stage depended on polling numbers.

We know roughly 100,000 more individuals donated to Sanders than O’Rourke.

But if O’Rourke can show that he is able to pull in impressive fundraising hauls and also do so on small individual donations, there’s no question that he will be a force to be reckoned with in the 2020 Democratic primary.