Visit the Web site of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and you'll be greeted by an animated banner ad blaring: "Contribute! In the '98 elections, Democrats were outspent 3 to 1." Fair enough. As a whole, Republicans routinely outraise and outspend Democrats, and that's been especially so since Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994. As long as they held the speaker's gavel, Democrats could use the power of their majority to offset the fundraising "liability" of their inherently less business-friendly policies. But when they lost that power, business money especially swung decisively toward the GOP, with roughly two-thirds going to Republicans in the last two election cycles.
But not this year. The House is up for grabs, and if Democrats don't make it, it won't be for lack of funds. When the final Federal Election Commission filings for 1999 were released in early February, they showed that while the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) had outraised the DCCC $52 million to $33 million, the Democrats had $19.8 million on hand compared to a mere $8.3 million for the Republicans. Those numbers represented more than just a relative success. At the same point in the 1997-98 cycle, Democrats had less than $2 million. And the run of fundraising success has not been limited to the DCCC. Individual Democratic challengers across the country are also doing far better than they have in past years. Eleven had raised more than $400,000 by the end of 1999 (compared to only one at the same point in the previous cycle). And eight actually managed to outraise their incumbent Republican opponents.
Financial success is admittedly an unfortunate proxy for political success; it's sad that fundraising becomes the indicator of political viability. But until the rules are changed, financial competitiveness both reflects and influences the relative strength of the two parties.
The Democrats' fundraising turnaround stems from a combination of favorable political winds, aggressive management at the DCCC, and the fact that almost precisely contrary conditions have prevailed on the other side of the aisle. The most important factor, undoubtedly, has been the narrowness of the Republican majority, the Democrats' perceived momentum from 1996 (when they picked up 10 seats) and 1998 (when they picked up five), along with the Republican disarray since impeachment.
The numbers have not only energized Democratic contributors; they've also prompted many K Street lobbyists to hedge their bets against a possible Democratic victory--something that annoys Republicans to no end. "There are people covering their bases now who never covered their bases before," as one congressional Democratic source recently told me. And the numbers bear him out: Campaign contributions from business interests are running even this year between the Democratic and Republican campaign committees.
Anxiety over the inroads Democrats have made among business lobbyists were the key factor triggering a shake-up late last year in which NRCC Chairman Tom Davis tapped Daniel Mattoon, a lobbyist for BellSouth and a confidant of Speaker Dennis Hastert, to take over as vice chairman. Mattoon's role was not only to energize NRCC fundraising, but also to convince rattled K Streeters that the GOP majority was in good hands and that their money would be better spent bolstering Republican coffers than hedging their bets against a potential Democratic comeback.
Another major factor fueling Democratic gains has been the intensity that Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who stands to become speaker, has brought to the fight, and Gephardt's somewhat improbable alliance with Congressman Patrick Kennedy. When Ted Kennedy's son was first elected to the House from Rhode Island in 1994, it was widely assumed that he would move to the Senate when the liberal Republican incumbent, Senator John Chaffee, retired. But Kennedy opted for a career in the House and used the luxury of his extremely safe seat to spend much of 1998 rais-ing money for the party and individual candidates. The marquee fundraising appeal of the Kennedy name no doubt played heavily in Gephardt's decision to appoint Kennedy chairman of the DCCC in November 1998. But Kennedy also turned out to be a highly effective administrator, organizing a well-oiled fundraising effort and maintaining a consistently tight-fisted policy on disbursing committee cash.
Gephardt has served as something of a mentor to Kennedy; and that relationship, coupled with Kennedy's youth, has allowed the minority leader to be far more actively involved in the committee's work than might have been possible with a more senior chairman--a fact that has given the committee's work an added prominence. "Martin Frost [the former head of the DCCC] did a great job ... but Dick was not as involved with Frost," one House Democratic staffer recently told me. "With Patrick being more junior, Dick can be more involved without stepping on anyone's toes."
For Republicans, the situation could scarcely be more different. While Kennedy and Gephardt have worked as a tightly knit team, NRCC Chairman Tom Davis and Speaker Dennis Hastert have exchanged mutual recriminations, with Davis complaining about members' lackluster fundraising and Hastert chiding Davis as a spendthrift. When asked to account for what happened to all the money, Republicans respond that it was invested in long-term party-building efforts that will pay dividends later in this and future election cycles. Davis, for instance, spent roughly $1 million helping Republicans in Virginia, his home state, finally take complete control of the state government--a prize that should yield dividends in the upcoming 2000 redistricting.
Other expenditures, however, didn't turn out nearly so well. On-again, off-again issue ads aimed at the 1999 budget battle came and went with little effect. And more funds were wasted in California. In an attempt to prevent Democrats from controlling the state's redistricting in 2000--something that could cost the GOP as many as a half a dozen seats in that state alone-- Davis invested $2.2 million on a dubious ballot initiative eventually ruled to be in violation of the state constitution. Another million was spent in a California special election where the Republican was handily defeated. A quarter of a million dollars went to the National Right to Life Committee; half a million went to the U.S. Family Network, one of three independent expenditure groups in the growing fundraising empire of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay.
Those last two disbursements caused the greatest controversy--not simply for the sums involved, but as irritants to lingering intraparty divisions. Moderate Republicans have become increasingly suspicious that the institutional apparatus of the congressional party is being used to champion conservatives over their more moderate brethren. These anxieties bubbled to the surface when the leadership split over whom to endorse in the Republican primary in New Jersey's 12th district, where two former incumbents, Dick Zimmer (1990-96) and Mike Pappas (1996-98), are fighting to challenge first-term Democrat Rush Holt (Hastert endorsed the more moderate Zimmer, while Armey and DeLay have endorsed the more conservative Pappas). But tensions boiled over when two conservative groups announced plans to target moderate Republicans with independent expenditure campaigns.
One of the two groups, the Health Benefits Coalition, has pledged to spend $150,000 in 30 Republican districts to pressure moderates who have supported HMO reform. Another group, the Club for Growth, has pledged at least $200,000 to unseat New Jersey Congresswoman Marge Roukema in the Republican primary, and is threatening the same for New York moderate Sherwood Boehlert. It's difficult to tell whether there is any reality to the moderates' fears of leadership collusion in these efforts. Even a hard-core conservative like DeLay knows how critical the moderates are to maintaining the Republican majority. And both he and Armey have loudly protested their commitment to defend every Republican incumbent regardless of ideological coloration.
But as is so often the case in politics, perception is at least as important as reality. In mid-March a group of moderates threatened to sever their ties to the NRCC if the leadership did not act more forcefully to ward off such efforts. Hastert eventually coaxed them back into line by committing to do what he could to discipline these maverick groups. But comments emanating from the Club for Growth cast some doubt on whether this whole affair has really been resolved. "We haven't heard a peep from the Republican leadership," Executive Director Leila Bate told me a week after Hastert's meeting with the moderates. "They must be saying something to the moderates, like, 'Hey, we'll call off the dogs.' Maybe they're playing both sides of the fence with them. I don't know. But they haven't been in contact with us." As the saying goes, with friends like these... .
Such divisions between moderates and conservatives, among the different players in the GOP leadership and among those championing different campaign strategies, underlie many of the NRCC's current difficulties. Internal divisions among Republicans have fed on themselves, just as relative unity has further galvanized the Democrats.
Even more telling than the DCCC's success vis-à-vis the NRCC are the fundraising successes of individual Democratic challengers. After all, the fundraising heft of one party committee might reasonably be chalked up to the ingenuity and doggedness of a small group of individuals. But the success of many candidates, operating independently, in many different parts of the country, likely points to some deeper underlying trend.
In years past, the problem for Democrats was not so much a lack of aggregate funds as it was the perverse distribution of the money raised. Comfortable incumbents, ensconced in safe seats, piled up sizable war chests while needy challengers were left without the funds to make their candidacies credible. But this year it's Republicans, not Democrats, who have had to goad safe incumbents to share the wealth. And the DCCC also seems to be doing a better job focusing its energies on key races where it can really make a difference. "This year they just have their eye on the prize," says the campaign manager of one of the DCCC's targeted races. "There's much more of a focus on winnable races than on spreading their resources out."
So why are Democratic challengers doing so well in the money chase if the success is largely their own? The answer turns not so much on specific issues as on a particularly able group of Democratic challengers. In a handful of races, impeachment remains a driving issue. Impeachment manager Jim Rogan, who has raised more money than any other congressional candidate, faces a fierce challenge for re-election to his southern California swing district. And Florida's surprise fundraising success, Jean Elliott Brown, has raised almost $100,000 of her $450,000 from Move On, a fundraising group established to hold Republicans accountable for their impeachment votes in 1998.
But these are the exceptions. The key factor in most races is that early prospects for a Democratic comeback (and effective recruiting) helped convince first-rate Democratic challengers to take on swing district Republicans who had received only nominal opposition in previous races. Two of the Democrats' fundraising success stories, Elaine Bloom in Florida and Regina Montoya Coggins in Texas, both of whom have raised more than three-quarters of $1 million, are good examples of the pattern. Bloom is a state senator challenging E. Clay Shaw, a moderate Republican from what is arguably a Democratic-leaning district around Palm Beach, Broward, and Dade counties. Shaw ran unopposed in 1998. Coggins is an ideologi-cal moderate and a former Clinton administration appointee with strong ties to the local business community who is running against Pete Sessions, a conservative Republican from what is again arguably a swing district. Sessions garnered only 56 percent against a weak and woefully underfunded opponent in 1998. And neither Bloom nor Coggins is even at the top of the DCCC's list of most winnable seats.
The candidacy of Rick Larsen, a Democrat running for an open seat in Washington's second congressional district, which is currently held by a Republican, illustrates the changing Democratic fortunes. Over the past decade, Washington State has been a congressional bellwether. In 1994 it was a killing ground for Democrats as Republicans took seven of the state's nine seats. In 1996 it became an object lesson for how Democrats squandered opportunities to pick up potentially winnable seats. That year much of the money available from in-state donors was swooped up early by the Clinton-Gore campaign, leaving little for struggling congressional campaigns. But "plundering" by the Clinton-Gore operation was only one of the problems. "The labor unions blew an enormous amount of money early on TV without doing anything on the ground," says one longtime observer of the state's politics. The state party also focused most of its get-out-the-vote efforts in Democratic strongholds like Seattle. That makes good sense for the top of the ticket, but it did little for Democratic congressional candidates in swing districts who need every Democrat they can get to the polls.
Larsen's success, both as a candidate and as a fundraiser, stems from a number of factors: the Snohomish County Democratic machine, which hasn't had one of its own in Congress for more than two decades, and wants one very badly; a powerful political patron in the person of Snohomish County executive Bob Drewel; and a pitched primary battle between two Republicans vying for the nomination. But other problems that plagued Demo-crats in 1996 have also changed. Local fundraising dollars this year are far more plentiful. Organized labor coalesced early behind Larsen, helping him knock out a potential opponent. And labor's efforts in general seem far better tuned than they were four years ago. Washington State "has been a laboratory for the AFL-CIO, both in organizing and political influence," says the same Washington State observer quoted earlier. "Just as they wasted money in 1996, the approach they took in 1998 yielded great results."
Another little-noticed factor helping the Democrats is an unexpected boon from the term-limits movement in the early 1990s. Of the eight Democratic challengers who have outraised their Republican opponents, three (including Elaine Bloom) are high-profile state legislators, with established fundraising bases, who are barred from seeking re-election to their state legislative seats. Others, like Coggins, are obvious first-tier candidates who simply decided early on that this was the year to run. Conversely, a disproportionate number of Republican incumbents, who as newcomers embraced term limits, are now themselves "termed out."
As of this writing, the consensus on who would win the battle for the House has moved ever so slightly in the Republicans' direction, largely on the basis of one Democratic party-switch and one retirement, both in Virginia. The pendulum will likely swing back and forth several times over the next six months. But the cam-paign war chest amassed by Elaine Bloom in Florida's 12th district is a good example of the role that money will likely play for the Democrats this fall. Despite her raising more than $750,000, most prognosticators still consider her opponent Shaw a marginal favorite to hold his seat. Yet Bloom's money should keep her in the running until the very last moment, ready to ride even the slightest Democratic tide to victory. In 1998, when voters turned decisively against the Republicans late in the game, many potentially vulnerable Republicans were simply running unopposed or facing nominal opposition. With any luck, the Democrats' success at raking in campaign dollars will keep that from happening this year, allowing a Democratic majority in 2001 to move ahead on priorities like expanding access to health care, the patients' bill of rights, and--oh yeah, campaign finance reform.¤