- Special Projects
WASHINGTON — Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard continues to reach far beyond the Aloha State when it comes to raising campaign cash.
The latest data from the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics shows that more than 80 percent of Gabbard’s itemized campaign donations in the current two-year election cycle came from outside Hawaii.
She also gets a larger share of small donations — those worth less than $200 that aren’t specifically listed by donor name and location on FEC reports — than the other three members of Hawaii’s delegation, showing her prowess for grassroots fundraising.
The percentage of her donations raised outside the state overshadows that of other Hawaii politicians, including the late U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, who had a large national profile and wielded enormous influence in the Senate.
“When you see fundraising from outside the state at that level it suggests that a candidate has at least some pull nationally or has gotten attention nationally,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“Gabbard is someone who gets mentioned when people talk about the future of the Democratic Party. Obviously, recent revelations about her going to Syria and things like that have curtailed that a bit. But at the same time, I think she’s still a name that people know.”
Gabbard boosted her national profile in recent years as a frequent guest on cable news networks, and more recently was the subject of a New Yorker profile.
She’s been critical of both former President Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee, and is considered a favorite among Bernie Sanders-like progressives who want to reshape the party.
So far in the 2018 election cycle, FEC data shows Gabbard has raised more than $1 million, with about $424,000 coming from small, unitemized donations.
Other members of Hawaii’s delegation are far less reliant on out-of-state donations.
For example, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, who’s up for re-election this year, raised more than $1.9 million in the two-year 2018 election cycle. According to FEC data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, Hirono’s itemized donations are nearly evenly split between her in-state and out-of-state contributions.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz showed a similar split in 2016, the last time he was on the ballot. The data shows he received about 53 percent of his donations from in-state contributions.
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa is running for governor in 2018. But in 2016 she raised nearly 80 percent of her itemized funds from Hawaii donors. The candidates vying to replace Hanabusa have reported getting from 75 percent to 99 percent of their campaign funds from Hawaii.
Inouye is the only other member of the delegation going back to 2000 who has come close to matching Gabbard in the percentage of money coming from out-of-state fundraising.
In 2010, Inouye raised more than $5.2 million, according to the data. Nearly 54 percent of his itemized contributions came from out of state.
Skelley said Gabbard’s ability to raise money outside of Hawaii, mostly through individual donations, suggests she has broad-based support and is an effective fundraiser.
But, he said, she can also run the risk of distancing herself too much from those in her home state, especially if her constituents feel she’s more concerned with her own ambitions than the needs of her district.
“If you lose touch with those who elected you in the first place,” Skelley said, “that can create trouble for you down the line.”
Officials with Gabbard’s campaign did not agree to an interview for this story to answer specific questions about her fundraising strategy.
Erika Tsuji, a spokeswoman for the campaign, said in an emailed statement that Gabbard appreciates all the donations she’s received from individual donors and noted that the congresswoman no longer wants to accept money from special interests.
“We are grateful for the support of more than 46,000 people from Hawaii and across the country who have given an average of $32 to Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign, and to the organizations that have endorsed her re-election, including the Sierra Club, ILWU, Moms Demand Action, and End Citizens United,” Tsuji said.
Gabbard’s latest FEC reports show that in the first quarter of 2018 she outraised her Democratic primary challenger, Sherry Campagna, by a margin of 44 to 1.
Campagna’s campaign reported raising just over $5,000 in the first quarter of the year.
Gabbard’s ability to raise money outside of Hawaii is unusual, particularly because she doesn’t hold a powerful leadership position in the House and isn’t in a race that is considered very competitive.
The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that tracks money and influence from campaign contributions to lobbying, notes on its website that a majority of House candidates receive most of their campaign cash from home-state donors.
There are exceptions, of course, such when the candidate holds a top post like Speaker of House or is the chair of an influential committee.
Competitive races — and especially those that have become proxies for fights on the national scene and for control of Congress — also draw in a lot of outside donations from individual donors, not including PACs and outside spending groups, known as super PACs.
For example, recently elected U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, a Democrat who won a special election in Pennsylvania to fill a seat once held by a Republican, received more than $1.7 million in out-of-state donations, according to FEC data — about 64 percent of his itemized contributions.
Gabbard said in May 2017 that she would no longer take donations from special interest political action committees, a growing trend among the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
But before that declaration, FEC data shows Gabbard received $26,700 from political committees, including Hawaiian Airlines PAC, the American Association for Justice PAC and Hindu American PAC, during the reporting cycle.
She’s also received a $1,000 donation from the late U.S. Rep. Mark Takai’s campaign.
The FEC data shows, however that Gabbard reimbursed $11,200 of that PAC money, including to PACs affiliated with the National Automobile Dealers Association and Bank of Hawaii.
When Gabbard announced on her campaign website she would stop taking PAC money, she said she worried about special interests, including those with ties to Wall Street, large pharmaceutical companies and defense contractors, shaping the political discourse and driving policy discussions.
Since first running for Congress in 2012, Center for Responsive Politics data shows Gabbard — who has more than $2.2 million in the bank — has received more than $1.3 million from PACs.
Among the largest of her PAC donors in the past are the National Automobile Dealers Association, VoteVets.org, the Airline Pilots Association, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Ironworkers Union, Matson and Lockheed Martin.
Gabbard’s ability to raise money could serve her well as she ponders her political future.
“There are three reasons why politicians aggressively fundraise, and one is they want to dissuade anyone from challenging them, they want to look impossible to beat,” said Colin Moore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Hawaii Manoa.
“For Tulsi I can’t imagine that being the case.”
Gabbard is one of the most popular politicians in Hawaii, according to polls, and hasn’t faced a serious challenger since trouncing former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann in the 2012 Democratic primary.
“The other two reasons are you want to run for another office or you want to buy influence in Congress so you can redistribute your money to other members,” Moore said. “In Tulsi’s case, it’s probably because she wants to run for something bigger, such as the Senate.”
Gabbard has sought a Senate seat before.
Just after she won her first term in Congress, and just after being been sworn in on Capitol Hill, she unsuccessfully sought the appointment to replace long-time Sen. Daniel Inouye after he died in 2012.
Schatz, who was then lieutenant governor, was eventually appointed to the seat by then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie. Hanabusa, who was Inouye’s preferred successor, also applied for the appointment.
“If you lose touch with those who elected you in the first place that can create trouble for you down the line.” — Geoffrey Skelley, University of Virginia Center for Politics
Another indication that Gabbard might be prepping for something more is how she spends her money, according to Skelley.
Campaign spending data shows Gabbard has paid the political consulting firm Revolution Messaging, which does digital marketing, fundraising and public relations, more than $207,000 so far in this election cycle.
And while it’s not a huge sum, it is enough to make her one of the firm’s top clients in 2018.
Other groups spending large amounts with the company, according the Center for Responsive Politics, include Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic challenger to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, Giffords PAC, which is spearheading the fight against gun violence, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who last year hired Revolution Messaging to help his bid for president.
Skelley said that Gabbard’s payments to Revolution Messaging alone make it likely she’s looking beyond the race against Campagna.
“What it shows is that she’s quite interested in raising her profile even further,” Skelley said. “I mean, it’s kind of hard not to see it otherwise.”
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to email@example.com and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.