Incumbents Work Overtime to Raise Campaign Cash

Democratic incumbents fill their campaign war chests as GOP challengers step up their games.

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Democratic members of Congress seeking re-election this fall have been working overtime to fill their coffers for tough campaign fights. In fact, many have raised more money in this election cycle than ever before, in the face of what polls show is a growing anti-incumbent mood around the country.

But Democrats can't rest easy, particularly with their control of the House and, perhaps, the Senate now on the line. Republican challengers are narrowing the money gap in November's most contested races and widening their leads in open races. Second-quarter campaign fundraising reports show that, with their primaries behind them, challengers in the hottest Senate races are benefiting from the anti-incumbent sentiments, diminishing incumbents' monetary advantages.

In many of these races, incumbents are on pace to far exceed their previous fundraising totals. The GOP's No. 1 target, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, for example, has raised over $19 million in this campaign cycle, more than double what he raised in 2004. California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, facing millionaire businesswoman Carly Fiorina, has also raised $19 million, exceeding her 2004 final total of $16.7 million. [See who gives the most to Reid.]

Incumbents generally try to build up big campaign war chests to deter challengers or, failing that, to be ready to pay for an aggressive campaign. "Once a race gets close, the incumbent is already on the defensive," says Michael Malbin, executive director and founder of the Campaign Finance Institute, an organization affiliated with George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "Incumbents raise more in close races than in safe ones." [See which industries give the most to Boxer.]

And Senate Democrats are on the defensive. Among the 15 Senate races considered most in play, all threatened incumbents are Democrats. Those senators seeking re-election this year had a hefty lead in fundraising at the end of the first quarter, bringing in a total of nearly $56 million—about six times the $9.6 million raised by their Republican challengers. But in the second quarter, challengers stepped up their game, rivaling Democratic incumbents, with a reported $11.4 million to the Democrats' reported $12.6 million.

Most incumbents, with their fundraising head start and access to Washington's lobbyists, remain way ahead in terms of cash on hand. Reid, for instance, reports $8.9 million compared to GOP challenger Sharron Angle's $1.8 million. The question, says Malbin, isn't whether challengers can match incumbents dollar for dollar but if they can raise enough to cross the threshold amount needed for an effective campaign. [See a gallery of cartoons about the Tea Party.]

At this point, many challengers are putting up stiffer fights than their opponents are accustomed to facing. With more than three months still to go, challengers in some of the most contested Senate races have raised more money than the 2004 challengers to those incumbents raised in their entire campaigns. Nevada's Tea Party-backed Angle, who narrowly trails Reid in the polls, has raised more than $3.5 million, over five times the total for Reid's 2004 challenger. Perhaps more significantly, $2.6 million of Angle's donations came in the second quarter alone, a surge that topped Reid's $2.4 million in second-quarter receipts. Arkansas Republican John Boozman, who polls now put ahead of Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, has received $1.5 million, more than eight times the total raised by Lincoln's 2004 challenger. In California, Fiorina's $10.6 million (half loaned from her personal accounts) is nearly $4 million more than the final total for Boxer's 2004 challenger. [See where Lincoln's campaign cash comes from.]

The partisan gap in fundraising decidedly favors the GOP in the 10 closest open-seat Senate races. Republicans in these battles ended the first quarter with a major fundraising lead and widened it considerably in the second quarter. GOP candidates had $65 million in receipts at the end of March, compared to around $35 million for Democrats. As of the end of June, that $30 million GOP lead had grown to $46 million. Furthermore, Republicans in those open races raised on average $2.2 million each in the second quarter, compared to the Democratic average of around $1.2 million.