Races Not Quite Bubbling

Posted July 16, 2008 at 6:32pm

Correction Appended

Republican incumbents hold a substantial financial advantage in the majority of House races considered on the bubble of the competitive playing field, according to second-quarter fundraising reports filed this week.

However, the new filings also reveal some trouble spots for a handful of GOP Members should a sizable Democratic wave develop later this fall.

An analysis of the 19 contests that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has classified as “emerging” — races that have the potential to become competitive down the stretch but have yet to reach that critical tipping point — showed 10 Democratic challengers either outraised or tied with their opponent in fundraising for the quarter.

Three Republican incumbents in particular posted numbers that appeared especially troublesome: Reps. Mark Souder (Ind.), John Culberson (Texas) and Brian Bilbray (Calif.).

Souder was the only incumbent in the group who raised less than $100,000 in the period. He collected $92,000 over the three-month period and showed $323,000 in the bank at the end of June. His Democratic opponent, attorney Mike Montagano, raised $142,000 and led Souder slightly in cash on hand with $352,000 in the bank.

Souder’s political profile and approach to running for re-election is somewhat akin to that of former Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) — only he represents a far more staunchly Republican district than Hostettler did.

Hostettler was a notoriously poor fundraiser who had to be propped up by the national party practically every cycle because he always faced a tough race. He was defeated by now-Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) in 2006.

Souder’s political base, like Hostettler’s, is rooted in the evangelical Christian community, which forms the backbone of his grass-roots network. But Souder’s hold on the district began to show some cracks in the previous cycle, when he won re-election with his lowest percentage yet — 54 percent.

In that race he faced a self-funding Democratic opponent who outspent him in the contest, and the National Republican Congressional Committee ended up dropping more than $220,000 to help Souder out of trouble. On the other side, national Democrats paid little attention to the race because they were focused on the multitude of opportunities elsewhere.

That isn’t likely to be the case this cycle. While Souder will no doubt benefit from this being a presidential year — President Bush won 68 percent in his district in 2004 — national Republicans aren’t likely to have the resources available to bail Souder out if he gets into trouble down the stretch. Democrats, meanwhile, are flush with cash and could cause the GOP headaches if they decide to spend money in the relatively cheap media markets that cover the northeastern Indiana district.

Still, Montagano’s fundraising totals have not been that impressive, and he has a ways to go to prove himself worthy of national party support. Democratic challengers in emerging races are expected to meet a set of criteria in hopes of eventually being moved up to the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” program, which provides fundraising and structural help to candidates in what are considered to be the top challenger and open-seat races.

Culberson’s opponent, meanwhile, is well on his way to proving his fundraising mettle.

Democrat Michael Skelly, who is personally wealthy and willing to spend his own money on the race, outraised the Congressman in the second quarter and ended June with twice the amount of cash on hand.

Skelly raised $612,000 in the period, including $200,000 from his own pocket, while Culberson raised $394,000. Skelly spent twice as much as the incumbent in the quarter but still ended last month with more than $1 million in the bank. Culberson, meanwhile, showed just $550,000 in cash on hand.

Skelly went up on the air this week with his first TV ads, though it’s a relatively small, mostly cable buy.

The district’s demographics make it a difficult climb for Democrats, and Republicans argue that no amount of money can flip the staunchly conservative suburban Houston seat to the other column.

However, Democrats point out that the Republican base in the district is more fiscally conservative than socially conservative and that a Democrat with a business background like Skelly could make the race competitive.

Meanwhile, Bilbray posted an anemic $120,000 raised in the quarter and has a $261,000 cash lead over his opponent, attorney Nick Leibham (D). Bilbray won a costly special election in 2005 with substantial financial help from the national party. That help isn’t likely to be there this time around, and the incumbent’s poor fundraising performance should catch the DCCC’s eye.

Overall, in the 19 emerging races four incumbents showed more than $1 million in cash on hand. GOP Reps. Mike Rogers (Ala.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), Peter Roskam (Ill.) and Michele Bachmann (Minn.) enjoyed huge financial advantages over their Democratic opponents as of June 30.

Skelly was the only Democratic challenger who had surpassed the million dollar mark, and only two Democrats showed more than $500,000 in the bank — and both are running against Virginia Republicans.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) faces a rematch with his 2006 opponent, Democrat Judy Feder, and the contest appears set to be another expensive affair. In the previous cycle, Wolf spent more than $1.7 million and Feder spent more than $1.5 million.

The reports this week showed that Feder and Wolf raised roughly an equal amount in the second quarter — a little more than $300,000 apiece — and they were relatively close in cash on hand.

Meanwhile, Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) was outraised by his Democratic opponent, nonprofit executive Tom Perriello, for the quarter. Still, Goode showed $834,000 in the bank at the end of June while Perriello reported $520,000.

Goode hasn’t faced a difficult re-election race since being elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1996. He later became an Independent and then formally switched to the Republican Party in 2001.

Not all of the fundraising news was good for the emerging race Democrats in the most recent filings. Two of the Democratic challengers in the emerging races posted cash-on-hand totals below $100,000.

Former Watertown Mayor Steve Sarvi, who is looking to knock off Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), showed $98,000 in the bank while state Sen. David Boswell (D), running for an open seat in Kentucky’s 2nd district, showed a paltry $45,000 on hand after raising $204,000 in the period.

Boswell, who won a May primary, is vying against state Sen. Brett Guthrie (R) for the seat of retiring Rep. Ron Lewis (R). Guthrie had $661,000 on hand at the end of last month, giving him a 15-1 cash advantage.

The new fundraising numbers also reflect Democrats’ difficulty in moving some seats, which based on their demographics should be top-tier contests, into the the competitive column.

Pennsylvania Reps. Jim Gerlach, Charlie Dent and Phil English along with Roskam and Bachmann all represent marginal districts that should be especially competitive in a presidential year. However, the Democratic challenger in each race has yet to show party leaders they deserve support.

Gerlach has faced a difficult re-election each cycle, but he currently has a $500,000 cash-on-hand lead over his opponent. Bachmann has a financial advantage of more than $1 million over Democratic nominee El Tinklenberg, a much-hyped candidate earlier in the cycle.

Challengers generally don’t need as much money as incumbents, especially if a wave develops benefiting one party over the other. Democratic challengers also don’t need as much money because the DCCC enjoys such a massive financial advantage over the NRCC.

To put the most recent fundraising totals in perspective, now-Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) raised $150,000 in the second quarter of 2006, when his race against then-Rep. Melissa Hart (R) was a mere blip on the House battleground map.

He had $136,000 in the bank at the end of June 2006, four months before defeating Hart 52 percent to 48 percent. The race didn’t emerge as competitive on the national radar screen until late September and early October.

Now-Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) raised $285,000 in the second quarter of 2006 and showed $223,000 in the bank at the end of June 2006. He went on to oust House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R) in November of that year.

Correction: July 18, 2008

Incorrect second-quarter fundraising numbers for several candidates appeared in the July 17 article “Races Not Quite Bubbling” and its accompanying chart.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) raised $250,000 and spent $88,000. His opponent, Josh Segall (D), raised $276,000 and spent $90,000.

Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) raised $395,000 and spent $154,000. His opponent, Tom Perriello (D), raised $313,000 and spent $294,000.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) raised $362,000 and spent $228,000. His opponent, Judy Feder (D), raised $320,000 and spent $208,000.

In Kentucky’s open 2nd district race state Sen. David Boswell (D) raised $204,000 and spent $190,000. His opponent, state Sen. Brett Guthrie (R), raised $364,000 and spent $56,000.