Challengers Outraise Vulnerable House Incumbents

Posted October 16, 2012 at 11:00pm

New fundraising reports filed this week showed many of the most vulnerable House members were outraised by their opponent in the final quarter before Election Day. 

It’s a foreboding omen for these members — some of whom have diminishing chances of winning — even though the numbers are less illustrative than they once were thanks to the proliferation of spending by outside groups. 

More than half of the challengers in races Roll Call rates as Tossups — excluding
member-vs.-member and open-seat contests — outraised their incumbent opponents in the third quarter. Those challengers include seven Democrats and four Republicans. 

Many of those candidates have found real momentum in the final weeks of their campaigns.

Ami Bera, a Democratic physician from California, and Richard Tisei, a Republican former state senator from Massachusetts, were among those who outraised their opponents by significant margins from July through September. Both are locked in tight races against longtime congressmen who are currently viewed as slight underdogs.

Bera, who lost to Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) by about 7 points in 2010, raised $747,000 in the quarter. Lungren pulled in a respectable $516,000. Tisei, the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor in Massachusetts in 2010, raised $661,000 in the third quarter. His opponent, eight-term Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), raised $508,000.

Lungren and Tierney had more in cash on hand at the end of September. 

But the cash-on-hand number — that key metric of how much a candidate has stashed away in the bank — wanes in importance by the end of the third quarter. Many candidates in competitive races have already spent much of their money airing television ads or have locked in cheaper rates by buying time early. 

Beyond Tisei, other challengers in competitive races in the Northeast had good third quarters. Democrats Carol Shea-Porter and Ann McLane Kuster, running in rematches in New Hampshire’s 1st and 2nd districts, respectively, outraised their Republican opponents, Reps. Frank Guinta and Charles Bass. Shea-Porter had more than a $300,000 edge on Guinta, while Kuster outraised Bass by more than $250,000.

Other Tossup races where the challenger outraised the incumbent include: 

• California’s 9th district, where Republican Ricky Gill outraised Rep. Jerry McNerney.

• Illinois’ 11th district, where Democrat Bill Foster outraised Rep. Judy Biggert.

• New York’s 18th district, where Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney outraised freshman Rep. Nan Hayworth.

• Pennsylvania’s 12th district, where Republican Keith Rothfus outraised Rep. Mark Critz.

• Utah’s 4th district, where Republican Mia Love outraised Rep. Jim Matheson.

Strong fundraising remains essential in the waning months of a campaign. But, with the proliferation of effective outside groups on both sides of the aisle, the consequences of lagging behind one’s opponent in third-quarter fundraising aren’t what they used to be.

For example, even though Democrat Julian Schreibman outraised freshman Rep. Chris Gibson (R) by about $150,000, Democrats and Republicans are spending at about parity this week on television in his district. Gibson is getting help from the National Republican Congressional Committee and a health care group, among other third parties, while Schreibman is backed up on television by a big labor union and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 

Still, even with outside groups, candidates’ third-quarter fundraising is important because their money can buy more ads per dollar: Candidates get the lowest rate per gross rating point when purchasing TV time; outside groups don’t. 

Beyond Tossup races, challengers outraising incumbents can be a sign their campaigns are on the move toward a much more competitive race.

In California’s 36th district, Democrat Raul Ruiz outraised Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R) in the quarter. The NRCC recently went up on television there to bolster Bono Mack, a flag that the seat has moved to a more competitive race.

In Kentucky’s 6th district, Republican Andy Barr outraised Rep. Ben Chandler (D) in the period. Although the race is not yet a Tossup, Barr’s strong fundraising means it probably will be soon.

In New York’s 11th district, Democrat Mark Murphy, not seen as a particularly strong candidate, outraised freshman Rep. Michael Grimm — a less-than-ideal sign for the vulnerable Staten Island member who has ethical issues swirling around him.

A challenger outraising an incumbent isn’t a political kill shot by any means, but it’s a bright and visible flare for the incumbents that they need to have a whole lot of hustle in the final three weeks of their campaigns.