If the fight for campaign dollars says anything about the battle for control of the House, Democrats have less to worry about than many hand-wringers in their midst like to think.
Even as the political outlook for the majority darkens, Democrats claim a cash advantage over the GOP that is shaping up to be their best bulwark against a midterm bloodbath. And the stark difference in the parties’ respective fundraising performances starts at the top, where Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) last year collected a respectable $13.7 million kitty to spread to his colleagues — a sum that nevertheless pales in comparison with the $21.3 million that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had hauled in for her party overall as of late January, according to a Democratic fundraising tally obtained by Roll Call.
Pelosi continues to set the pace for her Caucus. The tally shows that as of Jan. 21, she had brought in more than $17 million of her $25 million goal for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee coffers. Pelosi has raised an additional $3.4 million for candidates in the “Frontline” and “Red to Blue” programs and forked over $850,000 to the DCCC in dues, $50,000 more than she owes. The Frontline program bankrolls the Caucus’ most vulnerable members, while Red to Blue aids Democratic candidates seeking Republican-held seats.
The California Democrat owes her ascent on the leadership ladder in large measure to her fundraising prowess, so her total, while enormous, is not surprising. At around the same time in the last cycle — early February 2008 — she had rounded up a similar sum of $22.4 million.
The performance has helped give the DCCC a wide edge over the National Republican Congressional Committee heading into the election year. The Democratic committee closed the year with $16.7 million in cash on hand, more than six times the $2.7 million that Republicans had banked. Democrats are still carrying $2 million in debt, however, while the GOP has paid off its debt in full.
“Of course Democratic leaders are raising a lot,” Boehner spokesman Don Seymour said. “They have the majority, the powerful special interests who put them in power want to protect their investment, and they’re shaking down corporate lobbyists for cash even as they wage a phony war on Wall Street.'”
But Democratic leaders are warning their rank and file against complacency. DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.), in a political briefing last month, made the argument that the majority is up against a much bigger war chest than what the GOP is showing on paper. Pointing to spending by conservative outside groups in the upstate New York special election last year, Van Hollen told Democrats they face an unknown threat and encouraged them to pony up their party dues. Senior Democratic aides said leaders will repeat that pitch, with greater urgency, in the wake of last month’s Supreme Court decision removing limits on corporate participation in campaigns — a ruling the majority fears will open up a flood of hostile money against its candidates.
Top House Democrats are, for the most part, falling in line. But there are some notable exceptions. Of the 22 committee chairmen, 10 have yet to contribute at least half of their tabs. And several members in top slots have yet to make any dent in their dues, among them: Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a chief deputy whip; House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.); and Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health Chairman Pete Stark (D-Calif.). They belong to a roster of 107 Democratic deadbeats on dues, though the 42 Frontliners are generally exempted, and party leaders don’t expect much from five lawmakers running for higher office. “The DCCC is a member participation organization and, especially in this challenging political environment, we appreciate everything our members do,” committee spokesman Ryan Rudominer said.
The Democratic dues payments range from a high of $800,000 for the top three leaders to a low of $125,000 for backbenchers.
Republicans, meanwhile, are putting the press on their own members to open their wallets and help close the fundraising gap.
But several lawmakers have still not paid in full their “NRCC assessment for 2009” — a combination of dues and fundraising requirements for the party’s March and June dinners — causing some leaders to try less conventional methods of persuasion.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) convinced several members to give “thousands of dollars” to the campaign committee following a presentation at the Republican retreat in Baltimore last week, according to GOP sources.
Sources said Hensarling reminded Republicans why they ran for Congress in the first place and about the goals they wanted to achieve in the House.
He then called on members who had fulfilled their obligations to the NRCC and gave them shirts printed with the words “I Want It Back,” according to GOP sources familiar with the presentation.
Hensarling told those Republicans who had not fulfilled their dues requirement that if they paid up that day, he would match their contributions and give them the credit for the extra funds.
Aides present said members were “blown away” by Hensarling’s offer.
Dee Buchanan, Hensarling’s chief of staff, declined to comment directly on the Texas Republican’s appeal, but said, “Jeb adheres to an old Ronald Reagan adage: that there are no limits to what we can achieve if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.