Republican congressional candidates race ahead in fundraising

By T.W. Farnam and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 17, 2010; 1:25 AM

Republican congressional candidates have sprinted ahead of Democrats in the race to raise money for the midterm elections, signaling a strong advantage for the GOP heading into the final two weeks of the campaign.

In the House, GOP candidates reported raising $104 million from July through September, compared with $89 million for Democrats, new disclosure records show. In the 18 top Senate races, Republicans brought in nearly $60 million; their Democratic opponents raised less than $40 million.

The third-quarter numbers illustrate a turnaround in fundraising for Republican House candidates, who had lagged $3 million behind Democrats the previous quarter. GOP challengers in 34 key districts outraised the Democratic incumbents, increasing the chances that Republicans will gain control of the House.

The fundraising surge by individual campaigns coincides with an unprecedented wave of spending by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other Republican allies, who have spread resources across more than 100 congressional contests. Expenditures by outside groups have eclipsed $150 million, with most of the spending in the past few weeks.

The frenzy is being fueled in part by a relatively small number of rich donors - oil and gas industry chief executives, construction magnates and other tycoons - who are able to exert outsize influence in specific races. Recent court rulings have made it easier for corporations and wealthy individuals to make unlimited political contributions, much of it cloaked in secrecy.

Ken Spain, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said donors were "mobilizing behind fresh-faced conservative candidates looking to send a message to Washington."

One of the few bright spots for Democrats came at the party level, where the two congressional committees brought in more than $31 million in the third quarter, records show. The Republican equivalents raised less than $20 million.

J.B. Poersch, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that despite Republican success in fundraising, "our supporters are making sure Democrats have the resources they need to wage competitive races and ultimately keep Democrats in the Senate majority."

The new disclosures provide a glimpse at an array of wealthy donors and interest groups that are driving the spending on this year's elections.

In Colorado, for example, a Virginia-based group called the First Amendment Alliance has raised about $200,000 from a handful of Colorado energy, banking and media executives, including $50,000 from billionaire and longtime GOP donor Philip Anschutz, records show. The alliance has spent about the same amount on ads in Colorado attacking Sen. Michael Bennet (D), who is in a tight race with GOP candidate Ken Buck.

On the left, unions are also taking advantage of looser restrictions. In Nevada, the Patriot Majority PAC, which has spent $1.5 million to help Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D), has received most of its funding from labor unions and casinos, such as Harrah's and MGM Mirage.

The money has helped Reid stay even in the polls with GOP challenger Sharron Angle, whose campaign reported raising $14 million in the third quarter. Reid's campaign said it raised $2.8 million during the same period.

The newly released records cover a small slice of independent groups whose contributors must be publicly reported, including a new breed of organizations known as "super PACs." Many other organizations, including the Chamber and other business lobbies, are set up as the type of nonprofits allowed to keep their donors secret.

"Clearly what you're seeing with some of these reports is the tip of the iceberg," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for increased campaign disclosures. "But even when you see the tip of the iceberg, you have a pretty good idea of what the rest of the iceberg is likely to look like."

Many of the donors revealed in the latest Federal Election Commission and Internal Revenue Service filings are familiar figures within political fundraising circles. Houston home builder Bob Perry, the main funder for the "Swift Boat" attacks against Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry in 2004, has given $4 million this year to the Republican Governors Association (RGA), which can accept unlimited contributions. Perry has also contributed to the First Amendment Alliance and American Crossroads, a leading GOP-friendly group that was formed with the support of former Bush administration adviser Karl Rove.

Other wealthy donors to the Republican governor's group include hedge-fund manager Paul Singer, who gave $1.5 million in the most recent quarter; Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson, with $1 million; and News Corp., owned by Rupert Murdoch, which has donated $1.25 million so far this year.

All told, the RGA pulled in more than $30 million in the third quarter, overwhelming the $10 million raised by the Democratic Governors Association. The fundraising will allow the GOP to outspend Democrats in crucial gubernatorial races around the country, while also burnishing the rainmaker credentials of the RGA's head, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a potential presidential candidate.

Some independent groups have formed in recent weeks to focus on only one race. One called We Love USA, which is running advertisements supporting GOP House candidate Allen West against Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), listed Renee Kaufman, a homemaker from Schenectady, N.Y., as giving $50,000, the bulk of the group's funding.

Property records for the New York address show the home is owned by Daniel and Renee Kaufman of Lighthouse Point, Fla., which is in the congressional district West is seeking to represent. Daniel Kaufman is the owner of Reagan Wireless, which sells wireless equipment.

Several incumbent Democratic senators were far outpaced by their GOP competitors. In Arkansas, Rep. John Boozman, who holds a double-digit lead in most polls, raised more than twice as much as incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D). Senatorial candidate Dino Rossi (R) of Washington state raised $4.7 million, about $1.4 million more than Sen. Patty Murray (D). Polls show that race is essentially tied.

Democrats were also running behind in races for some open Senate seats. In Delaware, Republican Christine O'Donnell took in nearly $3.8 million from the last days of August until the end of September, more than three times as much as Democratic opponent Christopher A. Coons.

In Kentucky, GOP candidate Rand Paul raised $2.7 million in the third quarter and has $1.4 million on hand to spend between now and the election. Democratic candidate Jack Conway raised $1.7 million during the same period and has $1 million remaining.

A handful of Republican stars in the House raked in the biggest cash totals in that chamber. Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) raised $5.5 million, and House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (Ohio) brought in $2.2 million. Boehner will probably be elected the next House speaker if Republicans take control of the chamber in November, as several independent experts predict.

Even in races Democrats are expected to win, enthusiasm among conservatives has helped Republicans raise money. In California, John Dennis raised $1.2 million for his campaign against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Democrats point to several of their Senate candidates who had good fundraising totals in the third quarter. Rep. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania raised more than was expected - $3.3 million, compared with $3.7 million by conservative activist and former congressman Pat Toomey. Alaskan Democratic candidate Scott McAdams, the former mayor of the small town of Sitka, raised $650,000. Recent polls show McAdams within striking distance in a three-way race that also includes Republican nominee Joe Miller and incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who lost the primary but has launched a write-in campaign.

Republicans are poised to make major gains in the House and Senate as the field of competitive races has grown recently. Handicappers now say that about 70 Democratic-held House seats are in play and as many as 13 Senate races. Republicans have much less threatened territory.

Staff writer Aaron Blake contributed to this report.

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