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No Rival and Plenty of Cash? Don’t Rest Easy

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Sen. Debbie Stabenow had $3 million in the bank through March and no challenger, but she well understands the limits of those assets.

With millions of dollars in the bank and no challenger, the path to re-election looks like a freshly paved freeway for some Senate incumbents. But using recent history as a road map, those factors can be poor predictors of electoral success and certainly don't guarantee another term.

With just days to go before the June filing deadline for campaign finance reports, incumbents are scrambling to raise money in an effort to demonstrate their political strength and to impress reporters and supporters. The political media can't resist comparing incumbent fundraising figures to their opponents' even though that can be a shortcut to poor analysis.

Challengers simply don't need as much money as incumbents; they just need enough cash to be viable.

The 16 successful Senate challengers over the past decade spent, on average, just 75 percent of what the incumbent invested, according to a Roll Call analysis. Only three of those challengers outspent their incumbent rival, and not by much.

At this point last cycle, then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) had almost $2.9 million in the bank and no challenger in a state that President Barack Obama had won by 14 points. Four years ago, then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) had $1.8 million in the bank and then-Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) had $3.5 million on hand. Neither had serious challengers, but now each has a former in front of their names.

Six years ago, then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) had a $4 million advantage over Bob Casey (D), and then-Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) had nearly $3 million in the bank and no rival. And eight years ago, then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) had almost $2.9 million and no opponent.

All of them lost.

When it comes to successful Senate candidates, it's not how much money you have, but when you have it and how you spend it. And the political climate can trump everything.

Last cycle in Wisconsin, Feingold and wealthy businessman Ron Johnson (R) each spent about $15.5 million. But the Senator had spent so much money running his campaign operation for six years that only a third of that money ended up on television at the end of the race.

"If a candidate is competitive in June, July, August, the money will be there in the end," National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Jesmer said about challenger races.

"When you're raising money late, it's all going for message," said J.B. Poersch, former execsutive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He said challengers can often avoid the burden of costly overhead, and late money can be quickly translated to television ads.

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