Democrats Leading Dash for Cash
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 18, 1998; Page A06
With less than four months until election day, Democrats dreaming of reclaiming the House of Representatives find themselves in an uncommon position: They are leading the money chase in many of the races where it matters most.
A Washington Post analysis of campaign financial reports filed July 15 with the Federal Election Commission shows Democrats hold an advantage in 16 of the 25 most hotly contested House races. Even more unusual, six Democratic challengers in those tight races have more money on hand than endangered Republican incumbents such as John N. Hostettler (Ind.), Vince Snowbarger (Kan.) and Jon D. Fox (Pa.).
Of the nine close races where Republicans have more money, five are incumbents, suggesting that while the GOP may be positioned to keep its slim majority, expanding its margin will be difficult.
Money may not be everything in politics, but at this stage in the campaign it is viewed by analysts as perhaps the single best indicator of a congressional candidate's strength. The candidate with money today is often the one who can attract more later particularly from the parties and political action committees, which are loathe to waste precious dollars on long shots. Cash in the bank this summer also means money for television ads in the fall, now considered essential in the majority of House races.
"The fact that any challenger is ahead of an incumbent speaks well of them," said Michael Malbin, a political scientist at State University of New York in Albany and author of "The Day After Reform." "This does not make a strong case for Republicans picking up seats."
Malbin said the latest Federal Election Commission reports are in keeping with this year's broader theme of a fierce battle to the finish this November. "These 25 show both sides are positioned to make it a real contest," he said.
The Democratic money edge almost certainly will not hold. Historically, the GOP and its myriad campaign committees have had millions more to pour into congressional campaigns for the post-Labor Day push. The National Republican Congressional Committee spent $102 million in the 1996 campaign, compared with $38 million by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, although Democrats are quick to note they picked up nine seats that year.
The GOP is once again flexing its money muscle. Last month, the party dumped a record $1 million into a three-week special election campaign for New Mexico's First District seat. For fall, the NRCC plans to give the maximum $65,000 to about 100 House candidates, compared with the 30 to 40 races Democrats will be able to fully fund.
"Our national committee's significant financial advantage over the DCCC is going to give us more than enough cushion to ensure that our targeted races across country are not only funded but well-funded," said NRCC spokesman Todd Harris, who noted his organization has almost $10 million on hand, compared with the DCCC's $4 million.
"The business community will begin to kick in significant money to Republican races in September and October," predicted GOP consultant Maria Cino. And in the case of the incumbents, "they still have the power of the office: mailings, town meetings, getting out more press releases and having a congressional staff."
But Cino conceded the July 15 FEC reports should serve as a "wake-up call . . . if you want to win you better be close to or have more money than your opponent."
Some candidates are already responding to the call. In Salt Lake City, GOP Rep. Merrill Cook is facing an aggressive challenge by a prominent teacher and union leader, Lily Eskelsen. She has been leading the money race all year, but Cook says his fund-raising "is actually picking up steam right now."
For this analysis, a candidate's financial strength was calculated by subtracting all outstanding debts (except personal candidate loans) from cash on hand reported in mid-July to produce a realistic assessment of what each contestant has to spend at this point in the cycle.
That accounting shows, for instance, that Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) has nearly $370,000 in the bank, compared with less than $100,000 for his opponent, Republican Nancy Hollister. In the open seat race in northern Kentucky's Fourth District, Democrat Ken Lucas has more than $353,000 available, while Republican Gex Williams has about $41,000 left after a bruising primary. And Democratic newcomers such as Christine Kehoe in San Diego and Brian Baird in Washington State have almost a half-million dollars on hand.
Democrats need 11 seats to regain control of the House, and a key ingredient to the party's strategy this year was to crank up its money machine earlier than in previous years, said Rep. Martin Frost (Tex.), chairman of the DCCC. Frost has not been shy about bullying the White House, safe Democratic incumbents and the newcomers about giving early and often.
"We've asked leadership and ranking members to give $50,000," Frost said in an interview. And each candidate he meets gets the same speech: "You have got to devote an enormous amount of your personal time to raising money. You've got to spend time on the phone and in person asking for money."
Exhibit A in the Frost money drive is Gail Riecken, an Evansville, Ind., city councilor challenging Hostettler in southwestern Indiana's 8th District. Since entering the contest, she has outpaced the incumbent in fund-raising and today, thanks in part to a high-profile visit by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Riecken has $283,000 available, compared with Hostettler's $271,000.
"I've been to Washington three times, and every person I talked to said to be a credible candidate you must raise $100,000 by Dec. 31 ," Riecken said, describing the Frost treatment. "Then every time I made a goal, someone had a bigger goal for me."
Riecken spends about four hours a day soliciting donations, working a network of friends' friends and making calls to total strangers. At night and on the weekends, she campaigns.
On first blush, the numbers are worrisome for Republicans, said Cino, who ran the NRCC when the GOP won back the House in 1994. "But as you look at each situation, you're probably down to four or five that are serious," she said.
She said some lawmakers such as Idaho's Helen Chenoweth are simply not aggressive fund-raisers and manage to win while running inexpensive, grass-roots campaigns. In other instances, Republicans such as suburban Philadelphia's Fox saw their bank accounts depleted by pricey primaries.
Yet the same holds on the Democratic side. Party leaders dismiss worries about the race in New Mexico's Third by explaining that Attorney General Tom Udall, with only $33,400, will rebuild now that he has won his primary. Still, Rep. Bill Redmond, once thought to be among the most imperiled Republicans this year, is sitting on more than $246,000.
Staff writer Ruth Marcus and staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company