Thursday, July 24, 2008

For House Races Now, It’s All a Question of Money

By Stuart Rothenberg

It’s no longer the time for mere scenarios or fundraising polling memos. Now is the time for serious candidates to show they have the fundraising energy and prowess to run top-shelf campaigns.

The latest round of fundraising numbers shows that some Congressional hopefuls have established themselves as credible candidates, while others need to find an explanation for their weak totals.

The weakest showings? How about three of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “emerging races,” all of which might be migrating to a new DCCC submerging races category?

Kentucky 2nd district hopeful David Boswell was promoted by some Democrats as a strong contender for retiring Rep. Ron Lewis’ (R) open seat. Yes, said Democrats about the Owensboro-Bowling Green district, it’s conservative, but the Democratic state Senator is a good fit for it.

Well, Boswell’s June 30 cash-on-hand total of $45,000 should end that talk. Republican nominee Brett Guthrie’s $661,000 in the bank means that, barring a total turnaround of finances, this race is over.

A few weeks ago, I wrote favorably about Kathy Dahlkemper (D), who is taking on veteran incumbent Rep. Phil English (R) in Pennsylvania’s 3rd district. Dahlkemper had plenty of time and reason to haul in cash after her April 22 primary win, but instead she raised $203,000 in the quarter and ended June with a disappointing $128,000. English had $787,000 in the bank.

Dahlkemper has some personal money, and polling suggests that she’s very much still in the race. But her fundraising numbers are disappointing.

I’ve heard a bit of a buzz recently about Democrat Steve Sarvi’s challenge to Rep. John Kline in Minnesota’s 2nd district. After seeing that Sarvi raised $147,000 in the second quarter and ended June with $98,000 in the bank, I have to figure that buzz is the winding down of the battery in the Democrat’s electric razor rather than excitement about his prospects.

Incredibly, Sarvi’s campaign is bragging about the numbers. Here’s what the candidate’s Web site said: “The campaign’s 2nd Quarter numbers represent nearly a two-and-a-half fold increase on its previous quarter and a three-fold increase on its 4th Quarter 2007 results.” Translation: The campaign’s unimpressive second-quarter numbers weren’t as bad as its pathetic first-quarter numbers and its even worse fourth-quarter of 2007 numbers.

If there was any doubt about New York’s open 25th district, the June 30 numbers should end it. Republican Dale Sweetland is his party’s likely nominee, but with an anemic campaign bank account of $108,000 against Democrat Dan Maffei’s $962,000, this seat looks comfortably Democratic.

Elsewhere, El Tinklenberg (D) in Minnesota’s 6th district showed $225,000 in the bank to Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann’s $1.3 million.

Then there is the case of Larry Kissell in North Carolina’s 8th district, who is rapidly getting the reputation of being the Democrats’ John Hostettler. Hostettler, you may remember, is the former Republican Congressman who didn’t like raising money — so he didn’t. Every two years, the National Republican Congressional Committee had to bail out Hostettler by spending its cash on his re-election. Finally, in 2006, he lost. Some Republicans were less than upset.

Kissell, who lost narrowly last time and complained that he received little support from the DCCC in 2006 (which is true), promised to raise more money this time. The DCCC showed early interest in the race, no doubt to make up for its inactivity last time. But Kissell’s fundraising this time has been stunningly inadequate. He may still win, but not because of anything he has done in fundraising.

Not all poor June 30 cash-on-hand numbers are as bad as they seem. New Jersey Republicans Chris Myers (3rd district) and Leonard Lance (7th district) have bank accounts that are scary. But they both had to spend heavily to win primaries that took place in early June, and their general election fundraising has only now begun. Give them a full quarter to see what their cash looks like.

I’ve also heard some talk that state Sen. Don Cravins Jr. (D) might give Rep. Charles Boustany (R) a fight in Louisiana’s 7th district, but Cravins just decided he wanted to run, and his $104,000 in cash on hand isn’t enough to make the Republican give a second look to the challenger quite yet.

If some candidates merit identification for their weak fundraising, others deserve attention for their strong efforts.

Rep. Mark Kirk (R) showed more than $2.8 million in the bank on June 30, and his opponent in Illinois’ 10th district, Dan Seals (D), had $1.17 million on hand. Two New Jersey Democrats running for open seats, John Adler (3rd) and Linda Stender (7th) each had more than $1.2 million in the bank.

In Florida’s 21st district, incumbent Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R) had more than $1.7 million on hand, while challenger Raul Martinez (D) showed more than $1 million in the bank. Washington 8th district Democratic challenger Darcy Burner had almost $1.25 million in the bank, and Virginia’s 11th district Republican Keith Fimian had $1 million on hand on June 30. And Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorski showed more than $2.1 million on hand.

Of course, these are just a few of the strong fundraisers. There are many others. But in a year where there seems to be so much money, it is the underperformers who are the real story.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 21, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.