There is great news in the bottom line at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee these days.
The committee has been able, using techniques lifted from the Republican Party playbook, to triple the amount it has raised in this campaign over the 1980 figure.
The not-so-great news is that the Democrats are still short by 10 to 1 of the bankroll at the disposal of their opposite numbers at the National Republican Congressional Committee.
It has pretty much been that way for a decade, ever since the GOP was the first to unearth the secrets of direct-mail, small-donor fund-raising. Democratic National Committee Chairman Charles T. Manatt is playing copy and catch-up now, but he knows too well that the process is long, slow and incremental.
Meanwhile, he calls the money gap "obscene," and cites it as the main reason his party is poised to pick up just 10 or 15 seats in the House this fall, instead of 25 or 30.
But daunting as it is, the money differential must be kept in perspective. It means Republicans can give their candidates some extras that Democrats cannot match: a nationwide media campaign, a targeting program that puts dollars where they are most needed and all sorts of exotic staff and computer expertise.
It does not mean that the average Republican candidate for Congress will have 10 times more money to spend than the average Democrat, or anything like it.
For the typical congressional candidate, the contribution pie slices this way: two-thirds from individual contributors, one-fourth from political action committees (PACs) and the remaining 5 to 10 percent from party sources.
Over the last three congressional elections Democratic candidates, largely on the strength of their greater number of incumbents, actually have raised more money from all sources than have Republican candidates. This year, that figure could be reversed, but it will still remain fundamentally at parity.
Money trends this year include some developments that Democrats, for all their deficiencies in party fund-raising, find encouraging.
Their old friends and bankrollers, the labor unions, are responding to Reaganomics by shaking the money tree with renewed vigor after a long stagnant spell. Meanwhile, other interest group allies, notably some women's groups and environmentalists, have jumped into the political money game in a big way for the first time.
In addition, the surge of business PAC money into the Republican column this year, long dreaded by Democrats, could turn out to be the story never written.
Based on midyear PAC reports and on the experts' best guesses, business PAC money in this campaign will be distributed about the way it was in 1980, favoring the GOP about 63 to 37.
That figure alone, however, misses part of the tale. A greater percentage of the business PACs' Democratic money will be of the "access" variety, going to safe incumbents who presumably could live without it. A greater percentage of business' Republican funds will be "risk money" funneled to races where it will have the most impact.
The last category of political money in which the Democrats will remain at a substantial disadvantage involves funds raised by ideological groups.
The two richest PACs in the nation, the National Congressional Club, founded by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), and the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) will raise and spend $20 million this year.
A few liberal PACs have begun to get into the field, but are discovering, like the Democrats' Manatt, that a decade is needed to make direct-mail lists competitive. This year they will be outgunned by the familiar 10-to-1 ratio.
A breakdown of major funding sources for candidates this year: The Parties
From Jan. 1, 1981, through last June 30 the three national Republican fund-raising committees had raised $146.2 million and the three national Democratic committees $18.9 million.
For its money, the GOP buys a $15 million television network advertising program. Democrats will have just $1 million for their institutional media campaign.
DNC executive director Eugene Eidenberg said he would be more worried by the gap if he did not find "fundamentally unbelievable" the GOP's message pinning the blame for the nation's economic woes on Democratic policies inherited by the Reagan administration.
"They've been in office for two years, and they're trying to claim they weren't at the scene of the accident," he said. "I just don't think it will catch on."
If sounding their message is one key area in which Democrats will be outspent heavily, "targeting" is another. Under law, each party's three major campaign committees, in concert with state committeee, can give a congressional candidate as much as $68,000 in direct contributions. A Senate candidate, depending on the size of the state, can receive from $73,000 to $1.3 million.
The Republicans are so well endowed financially that they will give the maximum allowable contribution to all or nearly all of their 33 senatorial candidates and to virtually all of the 80 to 100 House candidates in targeted races, where an incumbent is in danger, a challenger has a good chance or an open seat is available.
This money, worried Democrats say, will buy what White House political director Ed Rollins has called the "2 percent solution:" the ability, by applying all of the latest in computerized get-out-the-vote wizardry, to change the turnout in a close race just enough to change the outcome.
Democrats cannot match these Republican resources in the close races. What particularly frustrates them is that, once they have finished protecting their incumbents, there is not much money left for promising challengers.
"At least a half dozen of the Republican Senate incumbents are shaky, with approval ratings only around 50 percent," said Leon Billings, director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "With a litle more money, we could get downright rambunctious." The PACs
The first question out of most political money-watchers' mouths this fall has been, "Where are the business PACs?"
The answer, said Bernadette Budde, political director of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, is "all over the lot . . . . The races this year are tougher to call. The districts are new and don't look as winnable . . . . You're not going to find business lining up behind the 'consensus challengers' the way you had in 1980." The midyear PAC reports to the Federal Election Commission showed surprisingly that Democrats and Republicans were even in funds received from business PACs. That ratio is expected to change as late money goes to Republican challengers whose campaigns have coalesced, but, by Budde's reckoning, Democrats will wind up with better than one-third of the business pie.
For labor, bipartisanship has never been a factor. Union PACs contributed more than $14 million to candidates in 1980, and more than 90 percent of it went to Democrats.
This year they expect to raise more, to make the ratio even more Democratic and to target funds where they will help most. In the Senate races, labor's two major targets are Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Harrison H. Schmitt (R-N.M.).
Some women's groups, feeling threated by the New Right and stung by the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, also are dramatically increasing political activity. The National Women's Political Caucus, for example, plans to spend $2 million on campaigns, up from $300,000. The National Organization for Women is to spend $3 million, up from $700,000.
Both are concentrating mainly on statehouse races, but there will be some congressional involvement and, in one case, a big push on the gubernatorial race. NOW plans to try to defeat Republican Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson, whom it blames for defeat of the ERA in that state.
The women's groups will be largely in the Democratic column, as will environmental groups newly active in politics in response to polices of Interior Secretary James G. Watt. The biggest of the groups, the League of Conservation Voters, will support 62 congressional candidates this year, 55 of them Democrats.