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Kissell of Death?

Fundraising Sluggish for DCCC Choice in Rematch With Hayes

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this week began attempting to rescue high school teacher Larry Kissell (D), whose lackluster fundraising and free-spending ways have left his campaign account nearly barren with less than two months until his Election Day rematch with Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.).

According to Federal Election Commission records, the DCCC on Tuesday purchased almost $120,000 in broadcast advertising touting its once highly touted candidate, the first independent- expenditure payment in an expected 9,000-plus-point advertising blitz that could cost the committee $1.6 million.

Kissell, who lost to Hayes by 329 votes in 2006 when he raised little money and had no help from national Democrats, initially set out to raise more than $1.2 million this cycle, according to his campaign. But as of July 1, the social studies teacher had raised just $676,000 and, despite not having a primary opponent, he had burned through two-thirds of his campaign cash, leaving his campaign with about $230,000 in the bank going into the homestretch.

In 2006, Kissell raised roughly $800,000 for the entire cycle.

Thomas Thacker, Kissell’s spokesman, denied that his boss has been asleep at the switch this cycle when it comes to raising money. Thacker said the “fundraising is going well” and predicted that the campaign will post its best quarter yet when it files with the FEC on Oct. 15.

“You could always spend more money if you had it,” Thacker said. “We’ll never have as much money as Robin Hayes has, but we have the right candidate and the right message.”

National Democrats remain publicly optimistic about Kissell’s prospects for flipping the seat. Although the district gave majorities to President Bush in the past two White House elections, Democrats are hoping that a huge black turnout for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in the presidential election this year elevates several candidates in North Carolina, including Kissell. The 8th district has a 27 percent black population.

North Carolina Democratic Party spokeswoman Kerra Bolton confirmed that state party officials expect Obama supporters will give Kissell a boost.

Bolton also said that Kissell’s campaign has “maintained their grass-roots focus.”

A review of campaign finance records shows that Kissell’s campaign walked away from the 2006 election in the red, down more than $56,000, including nearly $20,000 to Kissell himself, who’d spent $35,000 on his credit card to finance his bid.

During the summer of 2007, the DCCC hosted a fundraiser to help Kissell retire his personal debt, which his campaign has since repaid. The National Republican Congressional Committee cried foul over the debt repayment fundraiser, filing a complaint with the FEC.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also has taken Kissell’s campaign under her wing, sending out a fundraising e-mail for him this week as a prize for winning a DCCC grass-roots-organizing contest in July.

“As Speaker of the House, I can tell you that we need more Larry Kissells in Congress,” Pelosi wrote in the mass e-mail sent on Kissell’s behalf. “Larry is a real fighter for middle class families because he knows their challenges all too well.”

Although pleased with the campaign’s overall take, Thacker admitted that running a campaign in a geographically large, relatively poor district poses unique financial hurdles for candidates. Nearly one-third of the residents in Hayes’ district are blue collar and 18 percent live below federal poverty levels — the third highest in the state — according to the Heartland Alliance, a national anti-poverty organization.

“Our message has broad appeal and you can see that who has supported the campaign,” Thacker said. “The fact that we’re such a rural district, that feeds into this somewhat. We’re pleased with the support we’re getting from D.C., across the country and that we’re getting in North Carolina.”

So far this cycle, Kissell has raised nearly 30 percent of his overall cash from out-of-state donors, according to CQ MoneyLine. His campaign also has raised more than $260,000 from labor unions and interest groups.

Thacker pushed back on suggestions that the campaign budgeted poorly or paid too much for political consultants and fundraising expenses, which have gobbled up more than $250,000 this cycle.

“We did not overspend to any degree,” Thacker said. “Larry couldn’t take six, eight or nine months off to start. From a resource standpoint, with the power of the incumbency, you’re in such a hole to start with, the only thing you can do is work harder, longer.”

And given his elevated status in the political world this cycle, Kissell also appears to be off his pace in raising money on ActBlue, the online fundraising clearinghouse for Democratic candidates. Kissell raised about $185,000 on the Web site in all of the previous cycle, but had raised only $154,000 through Wednesday — a trend Thacker expects to change.

“The closer you get [to the election], as people begin to focus on the race, focus on challengers, that money will turn late to us, as it did last time,” he said.

But should it not, Thacker said Kissell’s campaign is confident the DCCC will make good on its promises to continue to back the challenge to Hayes, who had about $1.2 million in cash at the end of the last reporting period but can likely expect little assistance from the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“The fundraising continues on a daily basis, but to know that the national party has made us a top-priority, targeted race,” Thacker said, “they would not have made that commitment — and followed through on it to date — if they didn’t know that Larry Kissell was going to win.”

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