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In Close House Races, GOP Incumbents Hold Advantage in Funds

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Despite a rush of campaign donations to Democrats earlier this year, Republican incumbents in highly competitive races in the House have a substantial cash advantage going into the final weeks before the midterm elections.

Democrats spent more heavily over the summer and early autumn than their Republican rivals in pivotal House districts, leaving themselves at a disadvantage of more than 2 to 1 in money on hand, according to a Washington Post analysis of the latest campaign disclosures.

"What this means is that Republicans have the wherewithal to slow down the tide that's been running against them this year," said Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, which tracks election funding.

To capture control of the House on Nov. 7, Democrats need to gain 15 seats. Analysts in both parties acknowledge that Republicans are virtually certain to lose at least a handful of seats. But whether that number falls short or surpasses the 15-seat threshold, they agree, could hinge on campaign fundamentals such as the amount of money available to candidates.

At the same time, Democrats are on a better financial footing in open seats -- those in which an incumbent is not running. Of the 12 open House races considered tight, Republicans have more cash on hand in seven of them and Democrats are ahead in five, the Post analysis shows.

Election experts noted that funds raised by candidates are only part of the overall picture. This year, in particular, outside groups and the parties have been spending heavily in districts considered up for grabs.

But the cash in candidates' coffers is a significant factor in congressional contests, said Kent Cooper, co-founder of PoliticalMoneyLine.com, a campaign finance Web site. "It's also the best sign we have now" about which candidates hold an edge as the elections near, he said.

The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter about elections, identifies 31 House Republicans in closely contested campaigns. According to their financial reports filed over the weekend, they had a total of $32.7 million in cash on hand as of Sept. 30, compared with $14.5 million for their Democratic challengers.

The National Republican Congressional Committee circulated an internal memo yesterday -- which a Republican gave to The Post -- noting that GOP candidates hold an average cash advantage of $450,000 in 25 of the most competitive districts.

In most years, this is not unusual. "Incumbents almost always outraise the challengers," said Anthony J. Corrado, a campaign finance expert at Colby College. But in recent congressional elections, incumbents generally outpaced challengers by more than 2 to 1.

What is notable this year, Corrado said, is that Democratic challengers have enough money to stage full-fledged efforts, and that is one reason the election appears to be so close. "Although they haven't matched the incumbents," he said, "challengers are raising the amounts of money that they need to be competitive."

In Kentucky's 3rd Congressional District, Democrat John Yarmuth has a third of the cash available to five-term incumbent Anne Northup (R), who reported $1.5 million in her latest filing.

"We knew that we were never going to have as much money as a 10-year incumbent," said Jason Burke, Yarmuth's campaign manager. Still, he said, the Yarmuth campaign has enough to advertise intensively through Election Day.

Northup's campaign said her cash advantage amounts to a powerful wall against Yarmuth's candidacy.

"Especially in a media market like Louisville, it's quite expensive to get your message out," said Patrick Neely, Northup's campaign manager. "Having a 3 to 1 financial advantage clearly better enables you to drive your message out, to get your voters to the polls, and to do all the things you need to do to win on Election Day."

The NRCC memo also noted that Republican Peter Roskam has an almost 7 to 1 cash advantage over Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth (D) in Illinois's 6th District, and that Republican Reps. Geoff Davis (Ky.) and E. Clay Shaw Jr. (Fla.) enjoy advantages of about 4 to 1 over their challengers.

The memo played down the cash disadvantages of two Republicans -- Mike Whalen in Iowa and Rep. Charles H. Taylor in North Carolina -- because they are millionaires who can fund their campaigns.

What's more, in Ohio's 18th District, where Rep. Robert W. Ney (R) is stepping down after his guilty plea in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, Republican Joy Padgett has more cash on hand than Democrat Zack Space -- $258,000 to $146,000.

Still, some Democrats in tough contests are financially outrunning GOP incumbents who are not self-funding. As of Sept. 30, Brad Ellsworth had about 50 percent more money at the ready than Rep. John N. Hostettler (R-Ind.), and Joseph A. Sestak Jr. had about 38 percent more cash than Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.).

In the 12 open-seat races that the Cook Political Report labels as close, Democrats had $5.7 million on hand and Republicans had $4.4 million.

The parties are scheduled to release their financial reports at the end of the week. At summer's end, the Republican and Democratic House campaign committees had similar amounts in the bank -- $36 million for the GOP committee and $34.9 million for the Democrats'. The Republican National Committee held an edge of nearly 4 to 1 over the Democratic National Committee in cash on hand -- $39.3 million to $10.9 million, as of Aug. 30.

That disparity at the national committee level -- if it remains about the same -- would give the GOP an additional benefit in the closing days of the campaign.

But Democrats are hoping that the national political environment, which has been hostile to the GOP lately, will mean that they will not need to raise comparable sums to be in the running this fall.

"It's not about total dollars," said Stu Rothenberg, author of a respected political newsletter, the Rothenberg Political Report. "In a wave election like this one, money isn't as important as mood and momentum -- as long as the challenger has enough money to be relevant."

Democrats are hoping such intangibles will hold sway.

"Everyone knew the GOP would be well funded," said Bill Burton, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The question is how big does the Republican cash advantage have to be in order to convince voters that they somehow, all of a sudden, actually want to hold on to the status quo in Washington?"

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