• February 17, 2021

Do Political Donations Have a Racial Bias?

While diversity in Congress has been part of the national conversation for decades and much progress has been made, how much money is raised by lawmakers of color is rarely part of the discussion. Data shows the numbers are lower than they should be.


The current Congress has more Black members than ever before. But representation is not the only measure of influence. 

While diversity in Congress has been part of the national conversation for decades and much progress has been made, often absent from that discussion are questions about how much support Black lawmakers receive once they reach the capitol, particularly in the area of fundraising.

It’s not a trivial issue. At a time when a House campaign costs almost $2.4 million and a Senate seat requires about $9.8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the ability to raise campaign money has a direct impact on a lawmaker’s career. Not only is it required to fund campaigns and stay in office, but it can also impact committee assignments, party standing, the relationship with leadership and the ability to influence outcomes, both in Washington and back home.

For members of Congress, fundraising is a necessary part of the job. Many spend a portion of every day hunting for support. As such, it’s something that all public affairs and government relations professionals should understand, whether or not they raise money or help run a PAC.

Unequal Support

As America celebrates Black History Month and the 50th anniversary of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), we decided to use data from Capitol Canary to examine fundraising among Black lawmakers. The numbers were revealing.

Of course, Black representation in Congress is still extremely uneven. African Americans make up about 13 percent of the country’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the new Congress, there are 58 Black representatives (including two non-voting members) in the House, which is about 13 percent. In the Senate, however, there are only three Black members, which is just 3 percent.   

The fundraising numbers are also lopsided. Without considering local economic factors in the states and districts they represent and differences between fundraising in the House and the Senate,  America’s 61 Black legislators should be getting about 11 percent of congressional political contributions. Yet they received only 6.2 percent in the 2019-2020 cycle.

Put another way, America’s 61 Black lawmakers raised $254 million. That number should have been closer to $464 million.

The average House member raised about $2.7 million into their congressional campaigns (leadership PACs and other vehicles were not counted), while the average Black legislator raised about $2 million. 

In the Senate, the numbers were heavily influenced by circumstances. The small number of Black lawmakers in the chamber (just three) and a special election in Georgia that helped decide control of Congress—and therefore drew massive fundraising—helped tilt the averages. Senator Raphael Warnock raised roughly $125 million for his campaign. Accordingly, the average Senate member raised $11 million and the average African American Senator raised $46 million, thanks to Warnock’s war-chest. The other two Black senators raised only $6.9 million on average.   

‘Reluctant Campaign Contributors’

Why do Black lawmakers raise less money than their colleagues? It’s not an area that has been studied heavily, and there may be many reasons. 

Systemic discrimination could play a role, as it does in so many areas in which statistics comparing Black and white Americans show large discrepancies. So too might the districts represented by Black lawmakers, which may have more low-income constituents than other districts. A Congressional Black Caucus Foundation report in 2005 showed that 10 CBC districts had poverty rates that were more than twice the national average.

The lower fundraising numbers may also relate to party affiliation. The large majority of Black lawmakers are Democrats (in a population of 61, only three are Republicans). That will naturally reduce the number of people and organizations willing to donate, as Republican donors are unlikely to support Democratic lawmakers. 

The donor population itself is also a reason. A Center for Public Integrity report in 2018 said that, while wealthy Black celebrities often give large amounts to charities and philanthropic efforts, political spending draws less interest. 

“The nation’s wealthiest African-Americans are decidedly reluctant campaign contributors, almost completely ceding the rarefied rank of ‘political mega donor’ to older, white men,” the report said.

It cited as an example the late Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who gave hundreds of millions of dollars to Republican groups and candidates, and was one of former president Trump’s largest donors.

“There’s no black analogue to Adelson,” the report said. “Not even close.”