Fundraising numbers released this week signal what could be the beginning of a new era in Capitol Hill's money wars.
Over the past four years, the National Republican Congressional Committee has toiled in the shadow of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's fundraising dominance, an advantage that arrived with the Democrats' House majority and was solidified by the Obama White House. Since 2007, the DCCC has raised, on average, $18.6 million more each year than its Republican rival, excluding loans and lines of credit.
Then came the campaign committees' recent monthly filings with the Federal Election Commission.
For the first time this year, the NRCC significantly outraised the DCCC in a month, bringing in $4.6 million to the DCCC's $3.8 million in May. The reports also confirm that the Republican committee enjoys double the cash on hand — $10.6 million to $5.3 million — than its Democratic competitor.
The cash pendulum began to swing toward the House GOP in 2010, as Republicans were headed toward historic midterm gains and retaking the House majority. But could the new numbers signal a shift back to the fundraising dominance the GOP long enjoyed before losing the House majority in 2006?
The NRCC this week was reluctant to draw too much attention to the shift, acknowledging there may be some weak months in the short term. But the committee conceded that the playing field has finally leveled.
"The NRCC is fighting in a new ball game for resources against Democrats, who will bankroll their job-crushing agenda with President [Barack] Obama and big labor interests," NRCC spokeswoman Emily Davis said. "While Democrats' cash advantage last cycle could not overcome their unpopularity with the American people, Republicans know that we must redouble our efforts and stay on offense to ensure Democrats' defeat in 2012."
And just as some Democrats downplayed the numbers as the natural result of a House majority change, other Democrats highlighted the GOP gains.
"News just broke of the Republicans' huge fundraising haul for May," DCCC Executive Director Robby Mook wrote in a fundraising appeal to supporters this week. "We can't let Tea Party Republicans and their special interest backers like the Koch Brothers gain the upper hand. Especially after the Republicans' fundraising haul, we need every committed grassroots Democrat to get involved. Contribute $3 or more today."
Republicans, too, will try to use the May numbers to their advantage.
Inside the NRCC, there is the sense that fundraising success improves its selling power with Republican investors. And it hopes to see a snowball effect as the cycle progresses that will neutralize any strategic advantage House Democrats held in years past.
Democratic fundraiser Michael Fraioli said the DCCC would likely struggle to keep up with its Republican counterpart in the near future, in part because of the aggressive fundraising push by the Obama campaign and the attention paid toward maintaining the Senate majority.
"They're going to be sucking up the money out there," he said, noting that early DCCC fundraising success this year was likely the result of going after the "love money," or those donors who are most loyal.
After the Democrats' low-hanging fruit is gone, it will become progressively harder, he said.
But Republicans have their challenges as well.
Specifically, Fraioli suggested that the GOP push to go after entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security could prevent Republicans from overpowering Democrats in the cash game. That theme certainly hurt Republican momentum in the recent New York special election.
"I don't know if there's a lot of money out there for throwing old people and kids under the bus," he said, adding that Democrats need to find a way to build off the surprise New York victory. "As long as things continue to look up for Democrats, as they did after the special election, the [fundraising] gap shouldn't be that big. But that enthusiasm has to continue. There has to be some optimism."
It should be little surprise, of course, that the balance of power has shifted. If anything, Democrats suggest they've done well to outraise the NRCC in the months immediately following the GOP takeover last fall. But the scope of the improvement within the House Republican campaign arm over the past two years is remarkable.
To say things were bad in 2009 was an understatement.
The NRCC's former treasurer had been charged with embezzlement several months earlier. Republicans were crushed in their second consecutive election cycle. And national magazines suggested that the GOP brand was nearing extinction.
It was a dark year for House Republicans, who had little idea of the historic gains they would enjoy in 2010.
The NRCC raised just $36.2 million in 2009, its worst showing in 12 years. The DCCC, meanwhile, generated 54 percent more, or $55.6 million.
"With energy comes money and in 2009 the NRCC was lacking both," said a GOP strategist familiar with NRCC operations last cycle. "But the team that was in place then — many of whom are still there — put in place a plan in preparation for the eventual shift in the political environment."
Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas) became NRCC chairman in January 2009. He brought with him an optimism that was ridiculed at the time (he set out to end Nancy Pelosi's run as Speaker) and connections to a wealthy Texas donor base.
It's too soon to say whether the NRCC's May advantage will persist. Through the end of the May, the committees fundraising numbers were essentially tied for the year; the DCCC reported $27.45 million to the NRCC's $26.82 million.
The DCCC, while downplaying expectations for the next quarterly filings, offered an optimistic assessment of the situation.
"Despite being in the minority, the DCCC is in a dead-heat with the NRCC in year-to-date fundraising but there's no amount of money Republicans could raise that could explain why they voted to end Medicare so they could protect taxpayer giveaways for Big Oil," said DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson. "In town hall meetings and poll after poll, buyer's remorse is setting in."
Look to the next batch of quarterly campaign filings, however, to see whether that "buyer's remorse" has any effect on the cash battle.