With the Republican Party on the cusp of major gains in the House next year — and with the dream of retaking the House appearing to be a real, if improbable, possibility — one major obstacle remains: tightfisted Republican incumbents.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the key cog in helping to finance GOP campaigns, has banked less than a third as much money as its Democratic counterpart and is ending the year with barely enough money to fully finance a single House race — no less the dozens that will be in play come 2010.
A big part of the problem, according to Republican strategists, is that GOP members themselves — the ones who stand the most to gain from large-scale House gains — haven’t chipped in accordingly, despite evidence of solid opportunities in at least 40 districts next year and with as many as 80 seats in play, according to the Cook Political Report’s estimates.
In the past three months, only 75 of 177 Republicans — most of whom represent safe districts — transferred money into the committee, netting it $2.1 million. The average donation was just $28,000, with only 11 members donating $50,000 or more during that time period.
During that same time period, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has netted nearly $4 million from 90 of its members — with 35 House Democrats chipping in at least $50,000.
Republicans are already expressing concerns that they may not have enough resources to fully take advantage of the political climate, which is shaping to be the most favorable for thesince the last time they took control of the House in 1994.
“We have the recruits to get this back, but we don’t know if we have the resources. We need every one of [our members] pulling at the oars right now,” NRCC executive director Guy Harrison told POLITICO.
The NRCC’s chairman, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), took the post last fall with high fundraising hopes, combining his own Texas money connections with a climate of rising anticipation in the conservative grass-roots.
The environment has grown even more encouraging throughout the year, with a wave of swing district Democrats announcing their retirement. Most recently, House Republicans scored a major coup in persuading freshmanto switch parties.
But that hasn’t yet translated into a financial windfall for the GOP, and in November the committee posted its worst monthly fundraising number since April — even at a time when all political indicators suggest the momentum is on the Republican side.
The fundraising disparity between the two committees is striking: The DCCC outraised the NRCC this year by more than $18 million, according to FEC figures at the end of November. The NRCC has only $4.3 million left in its campaign account — with more than $2 million in debt — leaving it with just a pittance to fund the dozens of races it hopes to aggressively contest.
The DCCC, meanwhile, is sitting on a $15.3 million nest egg (with $2.6 million owed), steadily expanding its cash-on-hand advantage over Republicans throughout the year.
The money disparity is so conspicuous that it’s become part of the Democrats’ messaging as to why they’ll be able to hold onto their majority. Earlier this month,of Maryland pointed to the NRCC’s anemic fundraising as a reason he doubted that the GOP would be able to make large-scale gains in next year’s midterms.
Van Hollen estimated that, if the NRCC spent money in just 40 House races, it would only have about $100,000 to spend in each one — chump change given the cost of modern campaigns, particularly in major-market districts.
“We are consistently talking to our members about the opportunity, and we’ve got to make sure they understand that. We’re getting outraised by their members, but I don’t think that will last long term,” Harrison said.
Harrison pointed to the diminished number of Republicans, to a tradition of late-breaking contributions from members and to the difficulties of learning to fund raise while out of power.
Other Republicans see a psychological barrier in a minority that has been under siege since 2006.
“Republicans have been through two cycles of psychological shell-shock. Their members’ first instinct is self-preservation, first and foremost,” said Republican consultant Phil Musser. “The fundraising environment for members in the minority isn’t what it is for members in the majority. It’s damn hard to raise the dough.”
(R-Calif.), the NRCC’s recruitment chairman, said he expects member transfers to grow in the upcoming months as Republicans feel more confident of their own individual standing and realize the real prospects of retaking the majority.
“We’re together, we’re excited, we see the possibilities. … We have to do a better job [fundraising], but the time frame right now is that you have to recruit the candidates first,” McCarthy said.
“You’re going to find the money will soon be growing once members get past the primaries, when they’ll be able to give more. When members are on defense, they’re trying to keep as much money as they can to protect themselves.”
The NRCC was also hurt financially during last month’s special election in upstate New York. in which the committee endorsed and spent money on a moderate nominee, Dede Scozzafava, who quickly drew the ire of the conservative grass-roots.
The committee spent nearly $1 million on the race, but more worrisome, lost support from many of the small-donor conservatives who have traditionally been a significant element of the committee’s fundraising efforts. The leading conservative blog RedState called for a fundraising boycott against the NRCC in light of its efforts for Scozzafava.
Harrison acknowledges that nearly every one of the party’s challengers will be outspent next year, and he has been training recruits to run lean and effective underdog campaigns. But he also noted that Republicans were greatly outspent in nearly every race in the wave year of 1994 but still managed to pick up 52 seats.
“We’ve got to get back down to the simple blocking-and-tackling of campaigns. There is no one silver bullet. [Republicans] got to a point in the majority where they believed in the silver bullet — you outspend the other side. That’s not a typical Republican race,” said Harrison.
“You go back to 1994, we got outspent in all of them. We have to have campaigns to understand how to do that and operatives and candidates who understand how to live off the land,” he said.
Harrison, a combative 6-foot 4-inch former college offensive lineman, is spending his first election cycle at the NRCC after serving as the chief of staff of the new chairman, Texas. Both men learned the lesson of 1994 firsthand: Sessions ran and lost narrowly in a little-noticed 1994 race in Dallas. The incumbent, a , retired in 1996, and Sessions took the seat.
“They were in a race nobody thought they could win,” said Brad Todd, a longtime Sessions adviser and now a key consultant to the NRCC. Sessions and Harrison, then fresh off the Dartmouth College football team, “drove around in a truck of manure [with a sign saying] ‘Congress stinks worse than that truck.’”
The committee is now scrambling to prepare for another wave, and early money is just part of that. Another element is capturing the energy of the loosely-organized new populist conservative grass-roots, where Harrison sees another parallel with 1994.
“We love the tea party movement,” Harrison declared. “We know the tea party movement is a group of people that Republicans are going to have to actively work with them and get them involved in their campaigns, and we have to have an agenda that brings them to our side.”
“Go back to ’92 and look at the Perot voter,” he said. “It’s not that much different.”
Since the New York special election, the committee has been careful not to alienate the insurgents. Its “Young Guns” training program, Harrison stressed, is open to multiple candidates in the same district to counter the feeling from some candidates “that somehow [the program] was getting involved in primaries.”
The committee is taking its lead, Harrison and Todd said, from an unlikely source:’s success in retaking the House for the Democrats in 2006.
Like Sessions, the former Chicago congressman inherited a committee that had long lagged behind its counterpart in fundraising. But Emanuel started 2006 with more than $15 million in the DCCC campaign coffers — more than three times what Sessions starts with 2010.
“At the end of the day, we don’t need as much money as the Democrats to win the majority,” said McCarthy. “They have to defend going in a direction America doesn’t want to go. … They need more money because they have to defend something the American people don’t want.”