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Monday Fix: Does an advantage in money give Democrats the edge in November?

President Obama and other Democratic leaders appealed to a gathering of prominent liberal activists Saturday, seeking to win back a disenchanted constituency that appears uninterested in helping the party avoid large losses in November's midterm elections.

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By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2010

With two senior Democrats facing the possibility of ethics trials in the House this fall, the economy still struggling and voters mad as hell at Congress, there is every reason for party leaders and strategists to expect the worst in the November midterm elections.

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Every reason but one: money.

In 23 out of the 30 Democratic-controlled House seats rated as tossups this fall by nonpartisan congressional handicapper Charlie Cook, the party's candidate carried a cash-on-hand edge as of the end of June. In fully one-third of those districts, the cash advantage was $900,000 or more.

The largest cash margins were enjoyed by Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Tex.), with roughly $1.7 million more on hand than Republican Bill Flores, and Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), who had a $1.5 million edge over state Sen. Robert Hurt. (Worth noting: Flores and Hurt had to battle through primaries, which drained their accounts.)

Of the seven seats in which Republican candidates ended June with more cash on hand than their Democratic opponents, no incumbent is running. (The two exceptions are in Ohio, where freshman Reps. Mary Jo Kilroy and Steve Driehaus are in deep trouble.)

Consider also that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had a 2 to 1 cash-on-hand advantage over the National Republican Congressional Committee at the end of June, and it's apparent that the majority party will be in a position to heavily outspend the GOP in the battle for House control this fall.

Of course, there's no telling whether that spending edge will be enough to keep House Democrats in the majority.

Reasonable people disagree.

Democrats insist that having so many well-funded incumbents proves false any comparisons to the 1994 election. Scads of Democratic lawmakers, including Ways and Means Committee Chair Dan Rostenkowski (Ill.) and House Speaker Tom Foley (Wash.), lost then because they were ill-prepared for the gale-force political winds blowing against them.

"Incumbents speaking directly to their constituents in ads cannot be undervalued in these midterm elections," said former DCCC chairman Brian Wolff, a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). "Having that cash advantage allows them to do just that and more of it."

The DCCC, in a memo released before the August congressional recess, made a similar argument. "The NRCC does not have enough money to compete in more than 30 districts and there are not enough well financed Republican candidates," the memo said. "It is nearly impossible for a challenger to overcome two-to-one cash on hand advantage and defeat an incumbent."

Not so, say Republicans. They argue that Democrats need only to look back to the 2006 cycle, when the GOP lost its House majority, for evidence that money isn't enough to overcome a wave.

"Having a significant cash advantage at the candidate and committee level only gets you so far in a bad environment, and that's what Democrats face this cycle -- a very bad environment," said Carl Forti, a Republican consultant who ran the NRCC's independent expenditure program during the 2006 cycle.

Ken Spain, the current NRCC communications director, added that GOP incumbents who lost in 2006 had, on average, a 171 percent cash-on-hand advantage over their Democratic opponents and that the NRCC outspent the DCCC by $18 million that cycle. (At the end of June 2006, the DCCC had $32 million on hand and the NRCC had $27 million.)

At its core, the battle for House control this fall is between money and mood.

If you follow the former scenario, the Democrats' money edge in more than two-thirds of its most competitive seats should allow the targeted incumbents to define themselves and, more important, their opponents, in a sustained way -- traditionally a recipe for campaign success.

But if the mood of voters is such that they want change no matter what, money can become -- dare we say it! -- immaterial in some of these races. Simply being the candidate who isn't the incumbent could be all it takes.


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