WASHINGTON – The first time Sen. Patty Murray ran for local office, she was so embarrassed to ask people for money for her campaign that she and her husband held a garage sale. But her generous husband could not stop himself from giving away an expensive lawnmower, she said, leaving the fundraiser at a net loss.
By the time she ran for the Senate in 1992, she had gained the confidence to hold out the hat enthusiastically.
“I learned that you have to ask people,” said Murray, D-Wash., adding, “The guys could go to the Chamber of Commerce. I went to the moms who had kids in preschool.”
For decades, female candidates lagged behind their male counterparts in fundraising, largely because donors, most of them men, did not have faith in their ability to win. Women – the go-to donors for female office seekers – were historically more interested in giving to causes than to candidates.
But over the last decade, women running for Congress have raised on average more than their male counterparts, and substantially more in the Senate in election cycles when prominent women like Hillary Rodham Clinton and Elizabeth Warren were in the game.
Warren, who has emerged as a fundraising powerhouse, collected $42.1 million for her race last year in Massachusetts, the most money a woman has ever raised in a Senate campaign. Second place goes to Clinton, who raised $38.7 million for her 2006 Senate re-election campaign.
The financial advantage among women is especially true for Democrats, who have benefited from a fundraising machine for liberal female candidates, the increase in female donors, who tend to give to Democrats, and the rise of small donations, which have helped women in particular.
“There has been a change in people’s perceptions of women’s ability to run and the power they are able to accumulate once elected,” said Dee Dee Myers, the author of “Why Women Should Rule the World” and a managing director at the Glover Park Group, a Washington lobbying and communications firm. “In politics, money follows the winners.”
Women in the Senate, who now hold a record 20 seats and lead some of the most powerful committees, tell a lifetime of stories about running for office and being told they could not win – and therefore would not be getting a check.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., recalled her race for governor in 1990, when people suggested that she get her rich husband to pay for the campaign, and women were afraid to spend their own money. “One woman asked me, ‘How can I help?’ ” Feinstein recalled. “I said, ‘You can make a contribution,’ and she said, ‘I’ll need to ask my husband.’ There was enormous bias against women by other women. And that’s been the biggest change.”
Female Democratic candidates have been helped the most by other women. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that Democratic women running for Congress in 2014 have received almost 40 percent of their money from women, compared with 29 percent for female Republicans.
Once women accumulate power, their fundraising ability grows much stronger. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is one of the most robust fundraisers in the country, recalled that when she first set out to raise money as a congresswoman, “I could not raise large sums for the party because people would say to me, ‘You don’t have any decision-making power here.’ ”
“That is why I ran for whip,” she added. “When you call people and tell people what your purpose is, you’re likely to get something.”