Dems hold money lead but face stiff headwinds this election cycle

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Bolstered by a savvy online operation, Democrats on Capitol Hill have vastly outraised Republicans on the campaign trail this election cycle.

But the financial advantage has hardly put the Democrats in the driver's seat ahead of the looming midterms. Instead, the party is fighting merely to survive November with its thin Senate majority — and a respectable House minority — intact.

For all the focus and energy the parties place on fundraising, the Democrats' dilemma suggests that campaign cash ultimately has a limited influence on voters and elections.

Indeed, a slew of other factors — including the GOP's shrewd 2010 redistricting efforts; the voter apathy that often accompanies the midterm cycle; and the unpopularity of President Obama, particularly in many battleground districts — appear ready to trump much of the advantage the Democrats' deep campaign coffers might have afforded them in a different year.

"The Democrats have a problem that money can't really fix," David Wasserman, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, an online election handicapper, said Friday. "They have to win over very Republican turf to gain seats, and those voters just aren't available to candidates with a 'D' next to their name."

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Democratic strategists disagree, arguing that the issues they're highlighting on the campaign trail, including bread-and-butter economic reforms such as raising the minimum wage and establishing equal pay for female workers, will resound with voters and prove the prognosticators wrong.

Josh Schwerin, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said the group's fundraising success this cycle reflects the sentiments of "hundreds of thousands of people across the country who are sick of this Republican Congress and want to give $10 or $20 to elect Democrats who will fight for the middle class."

The Democrats say it’s far too early to write them off in November.

"People start to pay attention after Labor Day," said Michael Czin, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

Republicans, meanwhile, insist that they are not worried that Democrats are bringing in more campaign cash. They have plenty of resources, they say, to take the Senate and add to their House majority.

"We are headed into the final months of the election with the resources to stay on offense," Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), said Friday. "With President Obama dragging down Democrats coast to coast, they are going to need more money just to stop the bleeding. 

What's not in dispute is that the Democrats are far outraising the Republicans on the campaign trail.

The DCCC, for instance, has brought in $136.2 million this cycle through July, according to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), versus $109.4 million for the NRCC. The DCCC's advantage comes even as Republicans outnumber Democrats 233 to 199 in the lower chamber. 

Across the Capitol, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has gained a similar edge, claiming receipts totaling $103.5 million this cycle — $27 million more than the $76.5 million raised by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) over the same span.

Still, the Democrats in both chambers face a steep climb in November. House Democrats need to net 17 seats to win back the Speaker's gavel, a goal that looks highly unlikely in the face of hostile political winds.

In the Senate, Democrats have a simple numbers disadvantage: They're defending 21 seats this cycle, versus 15 for the Republicans, and a number of them are in conservative-leaning states, including Alaska; Arkansas; Louisiana and North Carolina, where Obama's unpopularity is a drag on the Democratic incumbents. 

Indeed, Democratic seats in Montana and South Dakota will likely flip to the GOP next year, according to the Cook Political Report, while a Democratic-held seat in West Virginia is "leaning" in favor of the Republicans. Cook rates seven other Democratic seats "toss ups."

Guy Cecil, executive director of the DSCC, said Friday he's confident the Democrats will keep control of the upper chamber for Obama's final two years.

"We’re running smarter, better campaigns with better candidates and are in position to hold the majority,” Cecil said in an email. 

Wasserman said the Democrats' financial advantage stems from several factors, not least the fundraising prowess of such national figures as Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). But he singled out the Democrats' Internet fundraising strategy, particularly that of the DCCC, as being especially effective.

"DCCC has perfected the art of rapid-response fundraising," he said. "[It is] activated at a moment's notice anytime the Republicans say or do anything brash." 

Republicans readily acknowledge the Democrats have the online fundraising edge. 

"They have more emails, plain and simple," one GOP strategist said Friday. 

But Republican leaders remain confident that the Democrats' cash edge will not be enough to overcome the other factors dogging Obama's party this fall.

"The playing field," the strategist said, "is really tilted in [Republicans'] favor."