The Democratic National Committee under Howard Dean is losing the fundraising race against Republicans by nearly 2 to 1, a slow start that is stirring concern among strategists who worry that a cash shortage could hinder the party's competitiveness in next year's midterm elections.
The former Vermont governor and presidential candidate took the chairmanship of the national party eight months ago, riding the enthusiasm of grass-roots activists who relished his firebrand rhetorical style. But he faced widespread misgivings from establishment Democrats, including elected officials and Washington operatives, who questioned whether Dean was the right fit in a job that traditionally has centered on fundraising and the courting of major donors.
Now, the latest financial numbers are prompting new doubts. From January through September, the Republican National Committee raised $81.5 million, with $34 million remaining in the bank. The Democratic National Committee, by contrast, showed $42 million raised and $6.8 million in the bank.
"The degree to which the fundraising has not been competitive is obviously troublesome," said former congressman Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), who is now a lobbyist here. He expressed confidence in Tom McMahon, Dean's executive director at the DNC.
One House Democratic leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relations with Dean's operation, put it more bluntly: "There is plenty of time, but the red flashing sirens should be going off there."
As Democrats are riding high in the wake of Tuesday's elections, running unexpectedly strong even in traditional Republican states such as Virginia, the DNC's fundraising problems represent a potential cloud. But those results could also boost the spirits of partisans in ways that will make it easier for Dean to even the balance.
As critics see it, Dean has disappointed on two fronts. The DNC has not replicated the success of Dean's presidential campaign two years ago in tapping vast numbers of new and smaller contributors over the Internet. And skeptics say he has not yet established rapport with and won the confidence of high-dollar donors.
DNC officials acknowledge that elements of their fundraising operation have started more slowly than expected. But they and other Dean defenders say his record should be viewed in context.
In the previous election cycle, the DNC had raised $31 million, compared with the RNC's $80 million, at this point in 2003. But the cash-on-hand disparity -- the main concern of party strategists -- was less daunting then, with the RNC sitting on $27 million to nearly $10 million for the DNC.
The explanation most offered by Dean allies for the sluggish start is that donors are tired of giving after watching Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) fail to deliver the White House. Kerry's fundraising success last year raised expectations among Democrats that the days of competing at a financial disadvantage with the GOP were over. For now, they are not.
"We will have the resources to do what we need to do," said Karen Finney, a DNC spokeswoman. "We are committed to investing in state parties and rebuilding the grass roots from the bottom up."
Finney noted that the DNC has staff in 38 states and will have organizers in every state by the year's end. She also noted that it donated $5 million to the winning gubernatorial campaign of Virginia Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.
Dean took over as DNC chairman with a background different from that of most of his predecessors. He succeeded Terence R. McAuliffe, who began as a fundraiser in his early twenties and had known many major donors for two decades.
In his presidential campaign, Dean drew cheers from activists for his sharp criticisms of what he described as an accommodationist party establishment, too beholden to Washington interests.
Dean's first eight months at the committee have also been marked by the departure of several members of the fundraising staff, including finance director -- and longtime Dean loyalist -- Lindsay Lewis, who resigned in late September and has yet to be replaced.
DNC sources said the post will be filled by the end of the month and point out that Joseph "Jody" Trapasso, a longtime party fundraiser, has stepped in.
Several Washington Democrats not favorably inclined toward Dean said the party was willing to gamble on his "potential for hoof in mouth disease" -- in the words of one lobbyist -- because of the unexpected fundraising prowess he showed in the 2004 race.
Dean, a virtual unknown nationally when the race began, shocked the political world with his ability to raise dollars over the Internet -- a fundraising medium that had not been fully tapped before his campaign. Dean raised about $20 million online in the primary season -- about 40 percent of the more than $50 million he raised for his entire campaign. Using techniques pioneered by Dean, Kerry raised more than $80 million online in last year's general election campaign.
So far, the DNC's Internet sums pale in comparison, but Finney said a turnaround is underway. In the past six weeks, the party has raised $845,000 from e-mail and Web donations; slightly more than half came from an e-mail appeal sent in conjunction with the indictment of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).
One Democrat with close ties to Dean and the DNC said that expectations were unfairly high for the governor's ability to raise dollars through the Internet. "It is a very different process to raise money for a presidential campaign than it is for a party committee," said the veteran fundraiser, who talked candidly about DNC finances on the condition of anonymity. "Donors are a little skeptical that the DNC is a good investment."
As some see it, Dean's larger problem is with the care and feeding of wealthy contributors, people capable of giving the maximum $26,700 allowed annually under federal law. Bob Farmer, a past DNC finance chairman, said that "where the chairman can make an impact is with the big donors and the big fundraisers."
Dean does not enjoy long relationships with these people and remains uncomfortable asking for a significant contribution after just meeting a donor, said party operatives familiar with his style. One high-dollar donor in the Washington area said the outreach by Dean has been woeful: "The only explanation I can fathom for the virtual total lack of quality communications is they are still in the process of figuring things out in terms of who their major donor list is."
Dean could not be reached for comment last night.
A source close to the DNC agreed that the high-dollar donor program needed to be "stepped up" and that since September it has been. In the past two months, Dean has spent at least six days in New York meeting with affluent givers either one on one or in small-group settings (15 or fewer donors). He has done similar meetings in Los Angeles and San Francisco, with plans to go to South Florida.
The sessions will pay dividends in the coming months, said a Dean loyalist: "These guys have to date for a while before you can ask them for money."
Cillizza is a staff writer for washingtonpost.com.