In the first quarter of an election year, sitting Members of Congress can use the power of incumbency to post big fundraising numbers and send a message to challengers that they have the resources to make sure they return to Capitol Hill for another term.
But incumbents can also telegraph another message altogether: weakness.
Both parties saw numbers to be excited about in the first-quarter fundraising reports. Democrats, on offense this cycle after losing the House majority in 2010, crowed about more than a dozen of their challengers outraising Republican incumbents. Republicans, meanwhile, were happy to see some fundraising successes not only among their challenger candidates but also among their vulnerable Members, such as Rep. Dan Lungren (Calif.).
When challengers outraise Members, it can be a fluke that’s not reflective of a larger electoral trend. But more often than not, it can be a red flag that things are not well in the Member’s campaign or that he has a particularly strong challenger.
Still, in a cycle where money from outside organizations such as super PACs is expected to play an outsized role, the fundraising expectations game is only part of the picture.
In some states that recently were hotbeds of competitive House race activity — where fundraising mattered just two short years ago — the playing field has shrunk considerably because of redistricting. Republican legislatures across the country have shored up enough incumbents’ districts that the GOP is favored to hold the House majority. In fact, hotly contested presidential states such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio feature only a few serious races where a House seat could change control in November. In those three states, there are only about five or six competitive races out of 45 districts.
The latest quarterly reports, covering the first three months of the year, show that for the most part, vulnerable incumbents are maintaining a strong cash-on-hand advantage over their challengers, who, in many cases, still face primaries before turning their focus to November.
Challengers who have run a serious campaign before have a particular leg up in the fundraising race.
Attorney Ann Kuster, who was the Democratic nominee in 2010 in New Hampshire’s 2nd district, outraised Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.) $352,000 to $269,000 in the first three months of 2012. It was the fourth consecutive quarter that Kuster raised more than Bass. Bass barely beat Kuster last cycle with a GOP wave at his back. As his fundraising shows, he has a hill to climb to keep his seat.
Just south of the New Hampshire border, in Massachusetts’ sixth district, the fundraising of eight-term Rep. John Tierney (D) was a sign of deeper troubles. His challenger, former state Sen. Richard Tisei (R), outraised the Congressman for the second quarter in a row, posting $354,000 to Tierney’s $326,000. Tierney has been hounded by his family’s legal issues — his wife pleaded guilty to federal tax charges in 2010 — and faces a real fight to keep his seat.
Former Rep. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.) is in a strong position against freshman Rep. Anne Marie Buerkle (R), who unseated him in 2010. Running in a redrawn Democratic-leaning district in upstate New York, Maffei outraised Buerkle in the first three months of the year, $312,000 to $238,000. But even more than a fundraising disadvantage, redistricting puts Buerkle in a tough position. Her reconfigured district would have given Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) only 42 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential election.
Also in the Empire State, Republican challenger Maggie Brooks, the Monroe County executive, outraised 82-year-old Rep. Louise Slaughter (D), $252,000 to $205,000. A court-drawn map left Slaughter, who is still viewed as a retirement possibility, with a district that contains only about 40 percent of her current constituents. She’ll need to up her fundraising game to get her message out to voters unfamiliar with her record.
In other districts, where new lines have hurt incumbents’ chances, Members can use fundraising as a show of strength. Lungren, one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country, outraised physician and 2010 Democratic nominee Ami Bera in the first quarter. It was the first time in three years that Lungren posted more than Bera. In 2010, the doctor outspent Lungren by $900,000 but lost by 7 points. Yet the Sacramento-area district got significantly worse for the Congressman in the decennial redraw, so he’ll need all the cash he can stockpile.
Outspoken Republican Rep. Allen West swapped Florida districts when a GOP-led redraw left him with an untenably Democratic district. He’s running against businessman Patrick Murphy (D) in a district with an almost even partisan divide. Despite West’s penchant for hyperbole — or, perhaps, because of it — he continues to be a fundraising juggernaut. West outraised Murphy in the first quarter, $1.8 million to $351,000.
In Ohio, with only two races expected to be competitive in November, Rep. Betty Sutton (D) outraised Rep. Jim Renacci (R) $458,000 to $434,000 in their Tossup-rated race, and Rep. Bill Johnson (R) bested former Rep. Charlie Wilson (D) in the first quarter, $545,000 to $315,000.
But the real takeaway from first-quarter fundraising reports is that there’s a lot less to look at than there used to be because of Republican redistricting successes in shoring up GOP incumbents.