During Congress's last weeklong recess, House Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York didn't take a vacation; she hopscotched up the California coast before traipsing back across the country to the moneyed enclaves of south Florida.
The 41-year-old lawmaker was doing what is crucial to winning a second term: chasing campaign cash.
Early on, she and other Democrats got marching orders from Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who, as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is the point man for trying to keep his party's majority. His dictate: Raise what you need for TV ads, a big-ticket item, by the end of March. Experts say television spending varies widely but can eat up as much as 50 to 60 percent of a House candidate's war chest.
Gillibrand is the poster child for Van Hollen's mandate. She has raised nearly $2.6 million, besting freshmen on both sides of the aisle. But she isn't the only Democrat raking in the cash.
Van Hollen's DCCC outraised the National Republican Congressional Committee, and freshman Democrats have outpaced GOP peers, grossing an average of $948,000 each compared with Republicans' $681,000 by year's end, according to the Campaign Finance Institute in Washington. "Democrats are raising money like crazy, like gangbusters," says its executive director, Michael Malbin.
Van Hollen once worried the superheated contest for the Democratic presidential nomination would mean his candidates would have to compete for donor dollars. "The good news is the rising tide is lifting all boats," he says. "The energy and enthusiasm is helping all our candidates."
Although Democrats lead, both sides are raising money faster than ever before. Of the 53 House members first elected in November 2006, 20 are members of "Club Million," having raised a million—or two—during their first year in office: 17 Democrats (42 percent of the party's freshmen) and three Republicans (23 percent). Early money helps to stave off potential challengers, but now, incumbents also must raise enough to contend with outside advocacy groups that are poised to drop millions into hot races. That may explain why, according to the finance institute, the number of freshmen who collected a million or more during their first 12 months in the House has grown dramatically from one in 2001 to three in 2003 to seven in 2005 to 20 in 2007.
Money primary. Deep-pocketed rivals also hasten the chase for cash. One Republican girding for the battle for Gillibrand's seat—and there are three—is Sandy Treadwell, 61, a wealthy man whose grandfather was an early executive with the General Electric Co. The former state GOP chair and New York secretary of state has already sunk $620,000 of his own money into the race—that's half his war chest—and he's still out "raising money every day." He expects a $1 million primary and a general election costing $3 million to $5 million on each side. By his calculations, Gillibrand is only halfway there.
Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole, chair of the NRCC, shows no concern about the Democrats' fundraising lead. "Most of our freshmen, frankly, are not in vulnerable seats," he says. "They won in an awful year. You couldn't beat Mary Fallin [an Oklahoma Republican] with a baseball bat. You're not going to beat Kevin McCarthy [a California Republican]."
He says freshman Democrats are playing defense. "I can't think of a single Democratic freshman who will have either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton carry their congressional district."
GOP freshman Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota won handily in a district President Bush carried in his past two elections. She, too, earned a spot in Club Million, collecting almost $1.2 million.
Bachmann, though, has already faced six-figure spending salvos by outside, left-leaning groups unhappy with her votes. "Given the tremendous expenditures by outside interest groups in her race, she has to raise funds to make sure her message is heard," says Stephen Miller, her spokesman.
Freshman Democrat Patrick J. Murphy, the only Iraq combat veteran elected to Congress in '06, says his high profile—as well as his razor-thin margin in a Republican-leaning district in Pennsylvania—keeps his fundraising apparatus humming. He, too, belongs to Club Million, having picked up nearly $1.6 million.
"There's a big target on our backs," says Murphy, who has pushed for a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq. "It would be symbolic for one of these pro-war 527 groups to knock out the only Iraq war veteran."