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.
Sestak is getting support from traditional sources such as labor unions and newer ones such as the "Net roots" -- online activists who are channeling significant sums to antiwar Democrats. He has raised $230,000 online this cycle, including thousands through blogs.
"We really hit a vein," he said.
"At its peak, I think those numbers really signify the enthusiasm of the Democratic donor base," said Amy Walter, who tracks House races for the Cook Political Report.
Democrats need to win 15 seats to regain control of the House for the first time since being evicted from the majority in the 1994 elections.
Walter and other political analysts said achieving strict equality in fundraising is not a necessity for a challenger. The key, they said, is having enough money to get a message out in advertising and to respond to an opponent's message.
Much of the money raised by Republicans in competitive races, Walter said, will probably buy negative ads against challengers. "The Democratic ability to respond to attacks will be critical, and that relates directly to money," she said.
L. Sandy Maisel, a government professor at Colby College in Maine, agreed that in a year when broader trends favor Democrats, a challenger in a competitive district who can stay within shouting distance financially has an advantage, even if he or she is outspent.
"All they have to have is enough money to make their campaign pitch and respond to whatever the Republican opponent has thrown at them," said Maisel, who once ran unsuccessfully for Congress.
GOP challengers are also raising money effectively, their funds sometimes rivaling the totals raised by Democratic incumbents. The problem for Republicans is that only eight Democratic incumbents are in seats considered highly competitive by Cook, meaning they are considered "toss-ups" or may "lean" a certain direction, but no candidate has sufficient advantage to be deemed a "likely" winner.
"There's not many opportunities for Republicans to be taking seats from Democrats," said Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan research center affiliated with George Washington University. "There's plenty of races to make up the 15 [that Democrats need]. There's not that many places for Republicans to make the hill steeper."
While Democratic challengers are doing well in the most competitive districts, overall figures for House races make plain that the incumbent financial advantage is hardly on its way to extinction. When all Republican incumbents are figured in, they have raised an average of about eight times what challengers have.
Even in the most intensely contested districts, Republican operatives say their candidates are in good shape to preserve the GOP majority. "If you look at Republican incumbents in competitive races, they are raising more than enough to have the resources they need in October and September," said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "I think our incumbents are in great financial shape and will continue to raise money until Election Day."
Analysts said one wild card this fall will be non-candidate expenditures. National party committees, so-called 527 independent groups, nonprofit organizations and others will spend millions on advertising and voter mobilization.
The dimensions of the fundraising battle are on display in Florida's 22nd District, in what may be the highest-priced House contest of the fall. Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a 13-term incumbent, has raised $3.2 million.
Shaw has faced financially competitive challengers before, but he has become more entrenched in recent election cycles. He had a two-to-one advantage over his challengers in 2002 and 2004.
But his opponent this year, state Sen. Ron Klein, has raised $2.7 million. And Klein's campaign notes that more than a third of Shaw's funds were raised at an $800,000 visit by President Bush in May and an earlier $300,000 visit by Vice President Cheney.
Klein is trying to show he can compete. Two and a half weeks before Election Day, he is to bring in former president Bill Clinton for a fundraiser that the campaign expects could raise $500,000.