By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010; A03
The Republican Party's strategy since early last year of lock-step opposition to the Obama administration's major legislative initiatives has proved to be less bankable than some party leaders may have anticipated.
Eight months before congressional elections, House and Senate Democratic candidates lead in nearly every important campaign fundraising category. Democratic House lawmakers appear likely to reverse their seven-cycle record of being outspent by House Republicans, according to recent finance reports.
Democrats in both chambers are enjoying the traditional advantages of majority-party status -- and then some. They lead in donations by political action committees, by committees affiliated with the national political parties or with House and Senate leaders, and in individual contributions to incumbent lawmakers. In some instances, their lead exceeds what the Republicans had when that party controlled both chambers in the 2005-06 midterm election cycle.
To no surprise, analysts differ by party on the causes and significance of the disparity. Some Republicans say a donation surge may still come, particularly as the party courts new, small donors outside Washington. They also complain that donations to party stalwarts have been affected by internal squabbles with rebellious "tea partiers," which they hope will end soon.
Republicans also say the party must remain unified in opposition to Obama if it wants to energize the most reliable donors, volunteers and voters. "If we look like winners, money will follow," said Steven H. Gordon, an adviser to Senate Republican leaders who in the past has raised $70 million for Republican congressional candidates.
But recent controversy over lavish and questionable expenditures by the Republican National Committee -- including chartered airplanes and a young Republicans' night out at a bondage-themed club in Hollywood -- appears likely to complicate efforts by the Republicans to overcome their deficit. Some traditional party supporters, such as Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, have urged followers to respond by withholding donations from the national party.
Democrats say their higher tallies so far are just the beginning, because campaign cash usually follows political momentum and Obama's health-care triumph may have ended a political slide.
"There's been a real kick-up of wind in Democratic Party sails," said Jonathan Mantz, who was a finance director for Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign. "Success will breed success, and the energy will bring new resources" to congressional candidates.
The Republicans' unified opposition to Obama's agenda kicked off with a failed attempt early last year to defeat his economic stimulus legislation, and reemerged during a failed effort in June to block a House Democratic climate change bill. It played out again during the failed attempt to stop Obama's health-care legislation.
But the party's defiance shows no sign yet of enabling its lawmakers to overcome the traditional minority-party financial disadvantage.
For example, the 165 incumbent House Republicans seeking reelection last year on average raised $587,570 over 12 months, while the 245 incumbent Democrats seeking reelection raised an average of $662,793, according to data from the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonprofit group affiliated with George Washington University.No sure thing
At the end of 2005, when Republicans controlled the House, the tallies were almost precisely opposite. Of course, the Democrats went on to gain 31 seats in the 2006 election and regain control of the chamber for the first time in 12 years, so fundraising tallies midway through a cycle do not necessarily predict outcomes.
But much of the time, they do. In the Senate, the Democratic advantage this year is also substantial: The 13 Democratic incumbents seeking reelection averaged $5.97 million in cash on hand in December, while the 13 Republican incumbents on average spent a third less and still had just $4.26 million on hand, according to Federal Election Commission data.
The 13 campaign committees used by top Democratic House and Senate leaders to pass funds to colleagues similarly enjoy a hefty lead over the 10 comparable Republican leadership committees, with 74 percent more cash on hand at the end of February.
GOP lobbyist Alex Vogel, who was chief counsel to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and at the Republican National Senatorial Committee, cautioned against emphasizing such differences. Democrats in coastal and big-city districts, he said, "hold more expensive seats than we do." Democratic Senate candidates "should be farther ahead," he said.
An imbalance also exists, however, in recent political action committee contributions, which historically finance roughly a third of House election spending and nearly a fifth of Senate spending. According to data from Congressional Quarterly Moneyline, 63 percent of all PAC spending in the current cycle has gone to Democrats, while Republicans garnered 36 percent.
Democrats won larger shares from nearly every industry. Even most contributions from the health-care industry went to Democrats, reflecting in part pharmaceutical and hospital industry support for the new health-care law.
On the other hand, although Democrats also won 54 percent of finance and insurance industry donations in 2009, some slippage occurred at year's end, as Wall Street aggressively battled Obama's plan for tighter regulation.
Some of the Democrats' hefty PAC advantage can be explained, again, by the traditional majority-party advantage. "These are not profiles in courage," Vogel said of many PACs, whose giving is often based on what lawmakers can deliver. But the overall disparity is larger now than in 2005 and 2006, when Republicans collected 56 percent of PAC spending.
A similar reversal has occurred for the three national committees that help finance House and Senate Republican races.
Although both parties are defending the same number of Senate seats -- eighteen -- the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee exceeds its Republican counterpart in funds raised and cash on hand.
The Democratic advantage in both chambers narrowed slightly in the first two months of 2010, with about $1 million (or 6 percent) more going to the National Republican Congressional Committee and roughly $500,000 more going to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
But these relatively small shifts are unlikely to determine the November outcome: Since 2005, the party-affiliated committees have directly contributed just 1 to 4 percent of total funds collected by House and Senate candidates. They allocate more to "independent" expenditures, but the impact on specific candidates is hard to track.Wild card from the court
One wild card is the impact of last year's Supreme Court decision lifting limits on direct expenditures by corporations or unions on advertising supporting particular candidates. Some Democrats are concerned that corporations might open their checkbooks for their favorites, but an internal Republican fundraising presentation for party leaders in February predicted "NO direct effect on . . . parties or candidates."
Likewise, spending this year by regulated advocacy groups, known as 527s, is hard to predict, particularly since a federal court said on March 26 that such groups can now accept unlimited contributions by wealthy individuals. So far, both collections and expenditures by Democratic or liberal-leaning groups have outpaced those by Republican or conservative groups, although a historically large Democratic advantage appears to have narrowed somewhat, according to data from the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
That means a lot remains uncertain as fundraising enters its final months. Underscoring anxieties in both parties is the ever-mounting cost of winning. Since 2002, the average cost of gaining a House seat has risen 49 percent and now exceeds $1.36 million. The average cost of attaining a Senate seat has risen 68 percent and now exceeds $3.03 million, according to the Campaign Finance Institute.