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Democrats Are Jarred by Drop In Fundraising

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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009

Democratic political committees have seen a decline in their fundraising fortunes this year, a result of complacency among their rank-and-file donors and a de facto boycott by many of their wealthiest givers, who have been put off by the party's harsh rhetoric about big business.

The trend is a marked reversal from recent history, in which Democrats have erased the GOP's long-standing fundraising advantage. In the first six months of 2009, Democratic campaign committees' receipts have dropped compared with the same period two years earlier.

The vast majority of those declines were accounted for by the absence of large donors who, strategists say, have shut their checkbooks in part because Democrats have heightened their attacks on the conduct of major financial firms and set their sights on rewriting the laws that regulate their behavior.

As the battle over President Obama's effort to overhaul the health-care system reached a fever pitch this summer, the three national Republican committees combined to bring in $1.7 million more than their Democratic counterparts in August. The pair of Democratic committees tasked with raising money for House and Senate candidates -- and doing so at a time when the party holds its strongest position on Capitol Hill in a generation -- have watched their receipts plummet by a combined 20 percent with little more than a year to go before the November 2010 midterm elections.

Large-scale defeats in the midterms could be a crippling blow to the ambitious agenda mapped out by Obama's top advisers, particularly if they happen in the Senate, where Democrats caucus with a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority. The party will have to work furiously to defend at least six Senate seats and as many as 40 in the House, including many snatched from Republicans.

"If they take them back, this is the end of the road for what Barack and I are trying to do," Vice President Biden said Monday at a fundraiser for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), whose district was held by a Republican for more than two decades before her 2006 victory.

Democrats said a struggling economy is only partly to blame for the poor fundraising performance and acknowledged a more perilous problem: satisfaction among activists that the party now holds the White House, 60 votes in the Senate and 60 percent of the House.

"There was a little sense of complacency that set in despite our best efforts to warn people," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "We made it very clear: Beware."

Democrats had watched the party's campaign committees rake in increasing amounts of money throughout this decade, culminating in the 2007-2008 election cycle, when their congressional committees raised a combined $125 million more than their GOP counterparts. They used that financial edge to boost their candidates with seven- and sometimes eight-figure advertising budgets, often using that money to run negative ads that candidates shy away from airing.

Now there are signs that such advantages may not be there next year.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was considered the party's best-run organization as it oversaw pickups of 14 Republican seats in 2006 and 2008. But through August, the DSCC had raised just $27.5 million, a drop of more than 25 percent, or $9.2 million, from the same point two years ago. While donations from special interest political action committees have increased, individual donors are disappearing at a rate that has alarmed party leaders: The DSCC's contributions from individuals was $18.5 million through August, a drop of $12.6 million, or nearly 40 percent, from two years earlier, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

A midyear analysis by the FEC showed that the DSCC declines at that stage had come entirely from individuals who gave $10,000 or more, a small slice of overall contributors but a group that traditionally provides about half the committee's fundraising total. Through June, those individual donors' contributions had declined by more than 50 percent from 2007. The committee is running 12 percent behind its 2005 pace among large donors.


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