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GOP's Financial Edge Shrinks

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By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 20, 2006

The traditional fundraising advantage held by incumbent lawmakers -- which Republicans have regarded as a safety wall in their effort to keep control of Congress -- has eroded in many closely contested House races, as many Democratic challengers prove competitive in the race for cash.

In a year of bad omens for the GOP, the latest batch of disclosure forms filed with the Federal Election Commission offers one more: Incumbency no longer means that embattled Republican representatives can expect to overwhelm weakly funded Democratic challengers with massive spending on advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts.

There are 27 Republican incumbents classified by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report as the most vulnerable to losing reelection this fall. These incumbents still boast a clear fundraising edge, but it is much less pronounced than in years past. According to calculations made from FEC data, the Democratic challengers in these races have raised about 60 percent of what their opponents have collected and have about the same percentage of cash on hand.

At this point in the 2004 election cycle, by contrast, Cook listed nine Republican incumbents as similarly vulnerable. Their Democratic opponents had been able to raise 42 percent of what their opponents collected, and challengers' cash on hand was a lower percentage. There were similar disparities in the 2002 cycle.

Of this year's 27 most vulnerable incumbents, 14 face challengers who have raised at least $1 million, according to FEC reports. At this point in 2004, no Democratic challenger had raised $1 million. What's more, all but one of the 27 Democratic challengers has raised at least $400,000 -- a figure that many election experts consider a minimum price of entry for candidates hoping to mount a credible campaign. Taking into account all House races, 36 Democratic challengers have cleared the $400,000 threshold.

"Challengers, in general, and Democrats, in particular, have made marked improvements in fundraising this election cycle," said Michael E. Toner, the Republican-appointed chairman of the FEC.

For political finance experts, the data are striking because they show that the usual fundraising advantage of incumbents -- who tend to have more access to special-interest money -- is durable but not impervious to competing trends. This year, these include a highly motivated base of Democratic activists and low approval ratings for President Bush and the Republican leadership in Congress.

If anything, the financial figures show that political success can be self-reinforcing. After this year's first-quarter fundraising period, which ended March 31, operatives and campaign funding specialists were struck by how a surge in small, individual contributions was lifting many Democratic candidates -- incumbents and challengers alike -- closer to parity with historically better-funded Republicans.

In the second-quarter period, which ended June 30, in many instances the trend accelerated. Contributors appeared more likely to give to candidates who demonstrated through numbers -- polls and fundraising reports -- that they have a decent shot at winning.

Twelve of the 27 Democratic challengers in Cook's most competitive House races raised more money in the latest quarter than their GOP opponents.

One of those 12 is former Vice Adm. Joe Sestak, a 31-year Navy veteran whose candidacy in Pennsylvania's 7th District in suburban Philadelphia is being driven in large measure by his opposition to the Iraq war. His opponent, 10-term Republican Rep. Curt Weldon, has never faced a competitive challenger, even though the Democratic presidential nominee won the district in the last three elections.

Fueled by financial success in the most recent quarter, Sestak has raised $1.1 million to Weldon's $1.4 million.

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