How Much Money Is Enough for a Safe Incumbent?

Posted November 17, 2004 at 1:58pm

On Aug. 17, 2004, the Public Policy Institute of California released a poll showing Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) holding a decisive 53 percent to 36 percent lead over challenger Bill Jones (R) in California’s Senate contest. [IMGCAP(1)]

Even more telling, voters didn’t know who Jones was, and they weren’t paying any attention to the Senate race. Boxer’s political future appeared secure.

One week later, on Aug. 24, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee transferred $1 million in 441(a)(d) coordinated spending funds to the California Democratic Party for use in Boxer’s re-election campaign.

Two weeks after that, on Sept. 8, the DSCC transferred an additional $1 million in coordinated funds to the California Democratic Party designated for Boxer’s re-election bid.

Seven days later, on Sept. 15, the committee dipped into its war chest a third time for Boxer, transferring another $1 million to the state Democratic Party. That put the DSCC’s coordinated spending for the California Senate race at a cool $3 million.

The reason for all this lavish spending in California? Boxer asked the committee to do so. Or, rather, the Senator insisted that the committee give her the cash.

That’s the same Barbara Boxer who won re-election by almost 2 million votes and 20 points — 58 percent to 38 percent — on Nov. 2. It’s the same Barbara Boxer who, in June 30 Federal Election Commission reports, showed more than $7 million in the bank, compared to Jones’ $962,000.

In one respect, Boxer’s request for DSCC funds isn’t surprising. Sitting Members of Congress always want “their” coordinated funds regardless of whether they need it.

But with Democrats fighting to win Senate control (or to at least avoid major losses), Boxer’s request for the DSCC to spend millions on her re-election campaign — against a Republican who had little or no chance of defeating her — was an act of political selfishness.

Sure, incumbents should never feel entirely safe when they are running against a credible challenger. Just ask Kentucky Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, whose large lead over challenger Dan Mongiardo (D) dissipated in a matter of weeks. As Election Day neared, Bunning needed every nickel he had in the bank, plus spending by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, just to hang onto his seat.

If it could happen to Bunning, couldn’t it have happened to Boxer? Was the California Democrat just being prudent in asking the DSCC to spend money on her behalf?

I don’t think so. There is a difference between taking one’s re-election for granted and making a serious assessment of vulnerability. There is also a difference in the cost of TV advertising in Kentucky and in California. California’s largest media markets are prohibitively expensive, and that made a late Jones rally virtually impossible.

By early September, it was clear that Jones was not a threat to Boxer. My own newsletter moved the California Senate race into the “safe” category for Boxer in July. And both this newspaper and the Cook Political Report rated the contest as “likely Democratic” throughout the summer and fall, indicating only a low level of vulnerability for Boxer.

But if Boxer’s insistence that the DSCC spend coordinated funds in her race was not unique, it was unusual.

“Most incumbents don’t hold the committee up for money if they don’t need it,” says one veteran Democratic campaign operative with knowledge of the Boxer-DSCC drama.

DSCC coordinated money was spent heavily on only three incumbents, Sens. Tom Daschle (S.D.), Patty Murray (Wash.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.), all of whom were widely seen as engaged in more competitive races. In each of those three cases, the National Republican Senatorial Committee was heavily involved financially.

If Boxer needed DSCC coordinated spending to fend off Jones’ challenge, the NRSC certainly didn’t act that way. The NRSC invested $410,000 in Jones’ race, almost all of it in mid-October. That commitment, when measured against the state’s coordinated limit of about $3.9 million, was hardly a vote of confidence in Jones’ prospects.

Boxer’s efforts to get the DSCC to spend coordinated dollars in California wouldn’t be so noteworthy if the committee didn’t have other states to spend those funds. But, of course, it did.

The DSCC was in the middle of tight battles in Kentucky, the Carolinas, Florida, Louisiana, Colorado and Alaska, among other states, and the Democratic candidates in those states were in far more competitive contests than Boxer.

In hindsight, it is clear that additional DSCC money almost certainly could not have saved Inez Tenenbaum in South Carolina or Brad Carson in Oklahoma. It might not have resulted in even one additional Democrat being elected to the Senate. But if you are Mongiardo or Florida Senate hopeful Betty Castor, you certainly would have liked some of the $2 million that went to Boxer.

The DSCC ended the 2003-04 cycle with a debt of about $4 million. And Boxer, who didn’t need a cent in coordinated funds to win re-election, is responsible for about three-quarters of it.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.