Democrats Sit on Cash Piles

Posted July 3, 2008 at 4:28pm

With nearly every Senate Democratic incumbent facing a smooth ride to re-election this fall, the candidates are finding themselves in an enviable position of sitting on a combined total of more than $50 million in cash and facing no race of their own to spend it on.

Yet, many of those seemingly safe Senators seem inclined to take the cautious route anyway in a presidential election year with an uncertain result. That appears to be the feeling even though just one of the 12 Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2008 — Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) — is considered imperiled.

Take Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) for instance, who is set to square off in November against perennial candidate Bob Kelleher (R). Baucus has amassed millions for his re-election, and according to the Federal Election Commission, he was sitting on $6.1 million as of May 14.

Baucus, like many of his fellow Democratic Senate incumbents, has been generous with his money. He’s given to his colleagues and more than $100,000 out of his re- election and political action committees to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Still, when asked recently what he was going to do with all the cash he’s banked for his re-election, Baucus dismissed being comfortable about his chances.

“You are never safe,” said Baucus, who is up for a sixth term. “You can take nothing for granted.”

Asked whether he believes the indefatigable fundraiser DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) would want him to change his mind about holding tight to his contributions, Baucus responded: “I am sure he would. I am sure he would.”

Similarly, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who had more than $7.5 million on hand at the end of March, said Democratic incumbents cannot be overly confident, even under the best of political landscapes. Durbin is set to face off against relatively unknown Republican Steve Sauerberg, a family physician who had raised $1.6 million last quarter but is unlikely to make headway against the Democratic Senator.

With that in mind, Durbin shouldn’t have to empty his campaign account in the coming months. He is on politically solid ground at home and also stands to benefit from the popularity and top-ticket status of his Illinois colleague and Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama.

Still, as Durbin put it: “I’m not going to assume anything about how much is needed. I am not taking anything for granted.

“I will continue to help people,” Durbin added. “But I need to have the campaign funds to run, and if [Sauerberg] puts more money in to win, we’ll be ready.”

One Democratic Senate leadership aide said incumbents came into the 2008 cycle with a goal of raising as much money as they could to ensure their re-election bids. Now those candidates find themselves having money to spare, which the aide said, “goes a long way toward avoiding a strong challenge in an election year.”

This leadership source said with most incumbents on solid financial footing, Senate Democrats “can focus almost completely on offense” as they look to try to expand their narrow 51-49 seat majority in November.

“If these guys can have more time and flexibility, they can help challengers raise money, too, and donate directly to challengers,” the aide said.

Many of them seem to be doing so, especially in recent weeks after their state primaries had concluded and their general election matchups became clear.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) kicked off the 2008 cycle preparing for a blood bath. Having knocked off incumbent Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson in 2002, most Democrats anticipated the GOP would make the first-term Senator a top target in his swing state this year.

Yet, Pryor, who had $3.7 million in the bank at the end of May, also is eyeing a clear path to re-election with no Republican opponent and his only challenge coming from Green Party candidate Rebekah Kennedy.

Pryor acknowledged he’s slowed down his 2008 fundraising efforts in recent weeks, but still believes he will need to dip into his campaign account to secure another term. Pryor recently transferred $100,000 from his campaign account to the DSCC, and is weighing how best to use his funds to help others, including the Arkansas Democratic Party.

“I haven’t made any fundraising decisions yet,” Pryor said. “I will make some decisions in the next few weeks.”

Pryor, Baucus and Durbin are three of the Democrats’ most striking examples of incumbents who have healthy bank accounts and strong re-election chances.

But they aren’t the only ones. They share that comfort zone with a handful of their colleagues, including Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin (Iowa), Jack Reed (R.I.), Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) and John Kerry (Mass.).

Each of those Democrats had at least $3 million on hand as of the end of March, with Kerry, the Democrats’ 2004 presidential hopeful, leading the field at $9.3 million. Kerry has a double-digit lead in recent polls heading into a general election matchup against an obscure Republican, Jeff Beatty.

Meanwhile, Landrieu, who just barely won her last re-election race in 2002, is widely viewed as the most — and perhaps only — vulnerable Senate Democratic candidate in 2008. As of the end of March, she had amassed $4.6 million to stave off a challenge from Republican state Treasurer John Kennedy.

A few other Senate Democrats are potentially eyeing viable GOP challengers, however, and may need to continue to raise and spend money through Election Day, including Sens. Tim Johnson (S.D.), who is battling state GOP Rep. Joel Dykstra, and Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), who will face off against former GOP Rep. Dick Zimmer.

Overall, most Democratic incumbents have been willing to share their wealth with other needy incumbents and challengers for office this year. While Senators face limits on how much they can give directly to individual candidates, they can give unlimited amounts of money from their re-election to party committees such as the Democratic National Committee or the DSCC.

As of the end of May, eight of the 12 incumbent Democrats had tapped into their campaign and PAC accounts to give just more than $500,000 combined to the DSCC. The fundraising committee had amassed a total of $82.5 million at the end of May, and had $38.5 million in the bank — a 2-to-1 lead over the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Schumer, in a brief interview recently, said he hoped to continue to take advantage of his colleagues’ financial security, which has added another level of optimism to an already hopeful Democratic Senate majority. Asked what he was doing to prompt greater generosity from the 11 safe incumbents into the DSCC coffers, Schumer said: “We’re working on every one of ’em.

“Every member of the Democratic caucus understands the importance of increasing our number in 2008, and we’re getting great cooperation,” he said.