Politics & Policy

The Underfunded 20

Quick cash could make the difference for these 20 GOP House challengers.

‘We learned in 2006 that money isn’t everything,” says Rep. Pete Sessions, the Texas Republican who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee and who is perhaps the man most responsible for whether the GOP wins the House this fall. “Environment can play a bigger role than money.”

Rep. Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican and Sessions’s deputy at the NRCC, recalls that in the summer of 2006, many Congress-watchers speculated that the cycle’s Democratic challengers were too underfunded to seriously contend for control of the House. Obviously, that analysis was wrongheaded: Not only did the Democrats win the House, but of the 22 incumbent Republicans they defeated, 19 had outraised their challengers, most by a significant margin. Overall, Democrats picked up 31 seats.

Still, it’s better for a challenger to have money than not to have money, and Sessions and Walden are quietly confident when they point to a PowerPoint slide that lists 24 GOP challengers who outraised their Democratic opponents in the past quarter. Another slide lists eight races that are “NOW ON THE BOARD BECAUSE OF FUNDRAISING.” Six races appear on both lists.

Those 26 races represent the good news for Republicans; the bad news is that they will need to win another 13 seats to control the House next January. And in a lot of the districts where the GOP stands a chance — districts that supported Bush and McCain, or for which the GOP has recruited excellent candidates — the challengers remain seriously financially outgunned. There is only one more full quarter until Election Day, and in the final full month, October, the candidates will mostly spend their campaign cash rather than replenish it.

As Sessions notes, money isn’t everything. Last year, New Jersey’s Democratic incumbent governor, Jon Corzine, tried to save himself with a relentless advertising blitz in the New York and Philadelphia media markets, that aimed to paint his GOP foe, Chris Christie, as corrupt and extreme. Christie won, but the deluge of ads had an impact, whittling down Christie’s double-digit lead in mid-summer to a four-percentage-point margin of victory on Election Day. Most House Democrats won’t have Corzine’s millions, but in largely rural districts with inexpensive television markets, they won’t need them.

My discussions with Republican strategists and conservative House-watchers yielded a list of 20 races in which this quarter’s donations are most likely to prove decisive. In many cases, these challengers have actually demonstrated some significant fundraising ability; they just have the bad luck to go up against incumbents — often long-established, powerful Democrats on key committees — who are sitting on small fortunes. Their districts are often conservative-leaning, they have demonstrated real charisma and energy, and in many cases the early polling is favorable.

The underfunded 20:

Martha Roby, Alabama’s 2nd district: The NRCC was high on Roby early this cycle, but she found herself in a furious and expensive primary fight that drained her coffers to $121,000, while Democratic incumbent Bobby Bright quietly accumulated a war chest of $734,000. The good news is that advertising is cheap in this district.

Rick Crawford, Arkansas’s 1st district: Republicans have had high hopes for this race since longtime Democratic representative Marion Berry announced his retirement — it is a heavily Republican-leaning district, rated R+8 on the Cook Partisan Voting Index. Democrat Chad Causey has only about $90,000 on hand, according to his most recent filings, but he has a well-developed fundraising network; he’s spent an astonishing $663,000 since beginning his campaign. Crawford has spent only $221,000 and has $213,000 in the bank. It is another relatively inexpensive district in which to buy advertising, covering northeastern Arkansas, although some of the district is in the expensive Memphis television market.

David Harmer, California’s 11th district: Harmer made a long-shot bid against Lt. Gov. John Garamendi in a special election in California’s 10th district last year and outperformed all recent GOP bids for that seat by a wide margin. Now running in the neighboring district, he has proven to be among the best fundraisers of the entire GOP class of challengers, raising $1.8 million in this fairly media-expensive district. Like many others on this list, a tough primary fight left him severely outgunned in terms of cash on hand: $233,000 to incumbent Democrat Jerry McNerney’s $1.2 million.

Cory Gardner, Colorado’s 4th district: As one of the NRCC’s young guns and a prominent state legislator, Gardner has already demonstrated an ability to raise enough funds for a competitive race in normal circumstances. But the Democrat he seeks to unseat, Betsy Markey, took a big hit for her team by voting for Obamacare, and many liberal donors and organizations are throwing cash her way to save her. Gardner’s impressive $762,000 of cash on hand is dwarfed by Markey’s $1.5 million. Markey won this vast, largely rural R+8 district with the help of Marilyn Musgrave’s mistakes last time, but this is one of those seats the Democrats would love to keep, to prove voting for health-care reform was not a career-killer outside deep-blue districts.

Adam Kinzinger, Illinois’s 11th district: Kinzinger is another candidate that the NRCC touted early, and he’s largely lived up to the hype. He ended the last cycle with healthy reserves — more than $480,000 on hand. Unfortunately, his opponent, Rod Blagojevich–ally and incumbent Debbie Halvorson, has $1.4 million. Because of the high cost of advertising on Chicago television, this Joliet-centered district of fast-growing Windy City suburbs ranks as one of the most expensive in the country.

Randy Hultgren, Illinois’s 14th district: Like Kinzinger, Hultgren is managing to raise funds in a state widely considered deep blue. He has raised $778,000 so far this cycle, but has only $244,000 on hand, while incumbent Democrat Bill Foster has $1.5 million. Foster hasn’t been there long; he won a 2008 special election in this R+1 district.

Bobby Schilling, Illinois’s 17th district: On paper, Schilling should be a hopelessly outmuscled challenger against Phil Hare, a two-term Democratic incumbent in a district Obama carried by 15 percentage points. But a recent poll put Schilling ahead by a comfortable margin, 45 percent to 32 percent, and it showed that Hare — who gained some infamy for uttering “I don’t worry about the Constitution on this, to be honest” while arguing with constituents about the health-care bill — has miserable job-approval and favorable numbers for an incumbent. This is all great news for Schilling, but Hare’s $885,000 can buy a lot of ads, and Schilling currently has only $211,000.

Jackie Walorski, Indiana’s 2nd district: A well-known and well-liked state lawmaker, Walorski has raised $564,000 and has $302,000 on hand. But her opponent, two-term incumbent Democrat Joe Donnelly, knows what is coming and has stockpiled his reserves; he had $989,000as of June 30. The Kokomo area, in the southern tip of the district, isn’t served by the South Bend media market; back in 2002, Republican Chris Chocola was able to run ads in the area that were largely unopposed, giving himself a little-noticed advantage in the race.

Larry Bucshon, Indiana’s 8th district: Bucshon is a doctor driven to run by the Democrats’ overhaul of our health-care system. Like many on this list, Bucshon has raised a significant amount of money since beginning his race, more than $492,000; however, a divided primary fight has left Bucshon with $206,000 on hand as he takes on Democrat state representative Trent Van Haaften. This district is scored R+8 in the Cook Partisan Voting index and includes the relatively affordable media markets of Evansville and Terre Haute.

Todd Young, Indiana’s 9th district: Young has the advantage of running in an R+6 district and the disadvantage of having only $259,000 in the bank while five-term incumbent Baron Hill has $1.1 million. Effective advertising in this district is more expensive than it might seem. The NRCC spent $1 million here in 2004 to knock out Hill; he won back the seat in 2006.

Andy Barr, Kentucky’s 6th district: In an ordinary year, a GOP challenger who raised more than $811,000 could expect smooth sailing. But despite this promising start, Andy Barr’s primary fight left him with only $360,000 on hand. His Democratic opponent, Rep. Ben Chandler, has been stockpiling for a long while, and has $1.7 million to defend himself with this year.

Alan Nunnelee, Mississippi’s 1st district: The challenger’s cash-on-hand total, $665,000, is not too far behind incumbent Democrat Travis Childers’s, $903,000, and Nunnellee has some strong winds at his back — this is an R+14 district with relatively inexpensive media markets. Childers will help answer the question of whether a rural Democrat can escape the political consequences of making Nancy Pelosi speaker.

Joe Heck, Nevada’s 3rd district: Democrats have had worries about incumbent Dina Titus for a long time, as Nevada has endured a colossal housing bust and the nation’s highest unemployment rate. Joe Heck has $362,000 on hand, a nice sum that, unfortunately for him, pales in comparison with Titus’s $1.2 million. Las Vegas is the major media market in this nominally Democratic district, which consists mostly of the city’s suburbs.

Chris Gibson, New York’s 20th district: There are six potentially competitive House races in New York this year, and most of these districts are fairly expensive places to run a campaign. Gibson currently has $452,000 on hand, a figure many challengers would envy, but incumbent Democrat Scott Murphy, who won his seat in a special election earlier this cycle, has $1.2 million. While registered Republicans narrowly outnumber registered Democrats, Murphy’s party has had a good run here in recent years. It is a very large district dominated by the Albany media market, although it does not include the city itself.

Renee Ellmers, North Carolina’s 2nd district: The lone poll of this district, taken shortly after YouTube footage appeared of Democratic incumbent Bob Etheridge assaulting a young man on the sidewalk for asking him whether he supported “the Obama agenda,” put Ellmers ahead by one point overall and ten points among independents. But that poll probably caught a peak of public disapproval of Etheridge, and until the incident, few expected the race to be competitive. In her most recent filing, Ellmers had just $42,000 of cash on hand, while Etheridge had $1.2 million.

Lou Barletta, Pennsylvania’s 11th district: At first glance, Barletta might seem a surprising name on this list. His opponent, incumbent Paul Kanjorski, is ranked among the most vulnerable Democrats, having won 49 percent in a three-way Democratic primary, and a recent poll put Barletta well ahead. But Kanjorski has $1 million in his campaign war chest, and Barletta has only $236,000. The Republican is still well-positioned, but he will likely face a wave of negative ads.

Mick Mulvaney, South Carolina’s 5th district: Any Republican taking on the House Budget Committee chairman expects to be outspent, and Mulvaney hasn’t done badly; he has $472,000 on hand. But incumbent Democrat John Spratt has about $1.2 million and can count on help from many liberal political players. Early polling looks promising for Mulvaney, and advertising in the district is not overwhelmingly expensive. But Spratt has been in this seat since 1982 and has survived plenty of good GOP years in the past.

Kristi Noem, South Dakota’s at-large district: Ads are already airing in what is likely to be a tough fight between Noem, who’s leading in Rasmussen polls of this race, and incumbent Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Noem has $291,000 on hand, compared with $706,000 for Sandlin, who managed to survive the 2004 GOP wave that defeated Tom Daschle.

Rob Hurt, Virginia’s 5th district: A recent Survey USA poll offered the jaw-dropping result that Hurt is ahead of first-term Democrat Tom Perriello, 58 percent to 35 percent. But incumbency has its privileges and advantages, and Perriello is sitting on more than $1.7 million. Hurt’s most recent filing shows him with a bit over $215,000. In terms of advertising cost, this district is in the middle of the pack.

Morgan Griffith, Virginia’s 9th district: One would expect the majority leader in the Virginia house of delegates to have a solid fundraising base, and Griffith has raised a quite respectable $402,000. But he has only $297,000 left, and his opponent, incumbent Democrat Rick Boucher, has been stockpiling a massive fund to help in a tough year — he has more than $2 million on hand. Boucher is already running ads, and he’s represented the district since 1982.

The NRCC will be able to provide some help to these and other GOP challengers. As recently as December, they trailed their Democratic counterparts in available cash by a 6-to-1 margin; after some recent strong months for the committee’s fundraising, Sessions anticipates that by November that will shrink to a 1.7-to-1 margin.

Perhaps the November political environment will be so advantageous for Republicans that even severe funding disparities can be overcome. But most GOP challengers would prefer to not count on that.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NRO.

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