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Health Debate Plays in Money Chase

With the end of the first quarter just two weeks away and a difficult health care vote looming, the campaigns of some vulnerable House Democrats caught in the middle of the contentious fight aren’t optimistic about what they’ll show in their first fundraising reports of 2010.

Observers will have to wait another month to see if the first-quarter reports of those Members will be among their lowest of the cycle, but one aide to a Democratic Member in a battleground district said this week that dragging out the health care fight certainly hasn’t helped to fill campaign coffers.

“We’re getting pinched from both sides,” the aide said. “Our Republican donors are starting to sit on their hands, and our Democratic donors are angry. Everyone’s waiting on health care. Plus you’ve got MoveOn and [Organizing for America] leaning on big donors to hold their checks until they see which way we all vote on health care.”

The burn will likely be felt well past the first quarter’s March 31 deadline as progressive groups aren’t likely to let the base forget the names of those Members who vote against their party and their president’s signature issue.

“Will there be winners and losers on the money front with this vote? Absolutely,” said veteran Democratic pollster John Anzalone.

Fourth-quarter reports from 2009 may have already offered an early indication of how the health care votes are affecting Member fundraising. For example, freshman Rep. Glenn Nye (D-Va.), who has bucked his party leadership on several key votes since coming to Congress, saw his lowest fundraising total of the year from October to December — the quarter in which the House first passed its version of health care reform. His fundraising fell off by more than $80,000 from the third quarter after he voted “no” on the health care bill.

Louisiana Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, the lone Republican to support the health care bill in November, also saw his fundraising dip in the fourth quarter of 2009. He raised about $250,000 that quarter after raising close to $400,000 in the third quarter and $370,000 in the second quarter. Cao has indicated that he intends to vote against the measure this time around.

A spokesman for Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.), who saw an even greater dropoff in fourth-quarter fundraising than Nye, pointed out that there is a natural dropoff in fourth-quarter receipts due to the holidays and argued that there was no correlation between the health care vote and fundraising.

Indeed, not every Member needs to worry about keeping their party’s base donors happy.

Anzalone said that Rep. Bobby Bright (D-Ala.), who has been his client for two cycles, has less to worry about as he continues to vote against his party on the issue of health care.

Bright “wasn’t reliant on progressive and union money to begin with,” Anzalone said. “That’s not where his money came from in 2008.”

Besides, he said, “there is a lot of in-state money that is not really issue-driven at all, it’s personality driven.”

John Foster, campaign manager for Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), said that since his boss made his opposition to the bill clear well before the first health care vote, his fundraising hasn’t really been affected one way or another. 

Besides, Foster said, Minnick’s base has always been a diverse one.

“One nice thing about how he does this [is] his support comes from across the spectrum,” he said. “We’re not wholly dependent on one group or another.”

Meanwhile, some Democratic insiders are downplaying the significance that the health care debate will have in influencing fundraising.

Mike Fraioli, a veteran Democratic fundraiser based in Washington, D.C., said that while hot-button issues come and go, fundraising is a constant.

“I’m not trying to be cavalier, but the fact of the business is that there’s not a huge impact on fundraising from issue to issue,” he said. “I won’t say it doesn’t matter. But in terms of the way we operate, Congress is always going to be doing something. Some issues move to the forefront very quickly and some of them last longer than others.”

Bob Grossfeld, a Democratic strategist and publisher of the Arizona Guardian, added that if Member fundraising is down this quarter it probably has a lot more to do with the national economy than the major issue that has engrossed Congress.

“What we’ve been noticing is that the average donation amount is lower, the frequency is lower, attendance at events is off and there’s fewer events,” he said.

But Foster said that after the first-quarter fundraising reports are filed, some vulnerable Democrats may be looking for a helping hand from the party.

“I think a lot of freshmen should be very thankful for the ‘Frontline’ program and for the fundraising operation” at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Foster said. “Their huge lead, their ability to help Members navigate some tough waters and their willingness to push people is going to keep a lot of folks out of trouble this cycle.”

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