Democrats Lead in Open-Seat Funds
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 15, 1998; Page A04
Democratic candidates hold a surprising fund-raising advantage in the open-seat races that will be critical in the struggle for control of the House, Federal Election Commission figures show.
An analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics showed that Democrats raised an average of $188,000 in open-seat races, compared with $112,000 for Republicans for the 15-month filing period that ended March 31.
While some of that money will be spent by Democrats against Democrats in primary battles, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is touting the numbers as an early indication that the party has a shot at picking up seats in the House, perhaps even the 11 it needs to regain control. There are 33 open seats, 17 being vacated by Republicans and 16 now held by Democrats.
DCCC Chairman Rep. Martin Frost (Tex.) said that in contrast to recent election cycles, the party has been recruiting good candidates particularly for the open seats and has been working with them closely. "We've given candidates some technical assistance with things like fund-raising," he said.
Republicans contend the Democratic open-seat financial edge means little in light of their significant advantage in overall fund-raising. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has raised nearly $42 million so far this cycle, compared with $18 million for the DCCC money that could come into play as the parties mount issue advertising campaigns on behalf of their candidates. On average, GOP incumbents have outraised Democratic incumbents, $380,000 to $324,000.
State Sen. Mike Thompson in California personifies the phenomenon of the cash-rich Democrat running for an open seat the GOP could have a hard time holding. Thompson decided early in 1997 to get into the race for the Northern California district being vacated by Rep. Frank Riggs (R). Thompson's perceived strength cleared the Democratic field, helping him raise more than $550,000. As of March 31, Republican Mark Luce had raised only $1,000 for his campaign.
In Las Vegas, University of Nevada regent Shelley Berkley has raised close to $600,000 to campaign for the seat of Rep. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who is running for a Senate seat. Some observers view Berkley and Thompson as virtually certain winners. The GOP is quick to point out, however, that it has not written off either race.
Democrats also see an opportunity to win a GOP open seat in Wisconsin, where first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton recently attended a Milwaukee fund-raiser for Lydia Spottswood, a registered nurse and Kenosha City Council member running for GOP Senate candidate Mark W. Neumann's House seat.
The event put Spottswood over the $500,000 mark in fund-raising, according to Democrats. Republican Paul Ryan had raised $175,000 for that seat as of March 31. To regain control of the House, Democrats also must defeat some GOP incumbents, particularly freshman and second-term members of the massive class of 1994. To that end, Democrats are counting on challengers such as San Diego City Council member Christine Kehoe, who has outraised Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.), and Evansville City Council member Gail Riecken, who has outraised Rep. John N. Hostettler (R-Ind.).
The GOP, for its part, enjoys a fund-raising edge in several open seats held by Democrats, including gubernatorial candidate Jane Harman's Southern California district and retiring Rep. Vic Fazio's Sacramento seat as well as in districts in North Carolina, Kentucky, Oregon and Pennsylvania.
Most of these battles are viewed on both sides of the aisle as essentially local skirmishes involving hometown personalities and issues. However, the decision of Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to go into attack mode has been a factor in motivating donors and improving poll numbers for Democrats, according to Frost. "I applaud every time I turn on the television and see Newt's smiling face," he said.
Frost's counterpart at the NRCC, Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), dismisses the idea that Gingrich will be a liability this fall. "I don't think it's been hurtful that people are telling the truth," he said. The NRCC says its phone solicitation has increased 50 percent since the offensive began.
Overall, according to FEC figures, candidates for the House and Senate raised $338 million and spent $185 million for the 15-month period, a 14 percent increase from 1996. Incumbents of both parties outraised challengers $138 million to $26 million.
Staff writer Ruth Marcus contributed to this report.
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