Having money isn't everything, but it can be deciding factor

For months, Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), has said Republicans would keep their majority in the House because they have the advantages of “members, money and message.”

For months, Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), has said Republicans would keep their majority in the House because they have the advantages of “members, money and message.”

House Republican incumbents have socked away more money than their Democratic challengers in 34 of 52 competitive districts and in some cases Republicans lead Democratic challengers by a ratio of seven to one, said NRCC spokesman Carl Forti in a statement.

But some of those figures are misleading because some candidates, such as Democrats Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) and Joe Courtney (Conn.), have spent exorbitant sums on television advertising buys.

In seven competitive Senate races, state Treasurer Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) lead incumbent GOP Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.). In Tennessee’s open seat race, Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) holds a narrow lead over former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker (R). In Maryland and Minnesota, the candidates are within $500,000 of each other in cash on hand.

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) holds a commanding lead over Democrat Jim Webb, but Webb raked in $3.4 million in the third quarter. And in Missouri, Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) has a $4 million lead over challenger Claire McCaskill (D) largely because she has made a large media buy for the final weeks leading up to Election Day.

History shows that money has its limits. In 1994, the last time an anti-incumbent wave swept the country, Democratic incumbents out-raised Republican challengers but Republicans picked up 52 House seats and won a majority in the Senate, too.

With three weeks remaining until voters head to the polling booths, one question for Republicans and Democrats alike is whether a tipping point has been reached: can heaps of money overcome the negative sentiment directed toward Republicans because of the war in Iraq and the House page scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.)?

“The Republicans are fighting against constant news out of Washington that things are not going right,” said Tony Corrado, a political scientist at Colby College. “The Democrats have the resources needed to respond to attacks and the Republicans [are] playing defense spending campaign money … to fight a wave of public opinion.”

“If you haven’t raised your money, you’re not where you need to be,” said a Democratic lobbyist. “Unless the RNC can come in with a tidal wave of cash, it won’t matter if there’s no message, I don’t care how much money you throw at it.”

If money is less a factor in tight races in a bad political environment, the looming question for both parties is whether the GOP’s vaunted turnout operation can save their incumbent members.

Several strategists from both parties said the turnout operation should give the Republicans a three-point edge in most competitive races. Whether that edge dissipates amid the Foley sex scandal and the Iraq war is an open question. 

“I don’t believe that’s the case yet … money can buy intensity,” said a senior White House official, adding that the RNC, NRCC and state parties had $56 million more than the Democratic Party and that since 1974, candidates who outspend their opponent by $200,000 won 97 percent of the time.

Republicans still hold an advantage because competitive House contests are fought in distinct districts, making them more insulated than Senate races from national trends. That means that when the House changes hands, it is a seminal event: both times the House has changed hands in the past 50 years, the Senate has flipped as well. 

“We’re not at that point, particularly not in congressional races,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “We work inside a very different universe. Outside a couple dozen seats most Republicans represent seats in which President Bush’s approval rating is in the high 40s and low 50s. Bush is not going to hinder [a Republican candidate].”

And even if some candidates have reached a point where money does not matter, having enough money can create options. For example, Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), who found herself in an unexpectedly tight race in 2004, bragged last week that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) had withdrawn a $600,000 television advertising buy. The DCCC’s decision gave the NRCC a break because it will not have to counter the DCCC’s advertising with its own.

But DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) told reporters on Monday that Musgrave shares a media market with Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.), implying that the money was for Salazar. Now the DCCC can decide where to spend $600,000 that Salazar does not need. The DCCC can repurchase airtime in northern Colorado for Musgrave’s opponent, Democrat Angie Paccione, redirect that money to protect vulnerable incumbents in Georgia, or spend on second-tier races in California.

“Money can’t solve everything,” said Cole. “But money can spare you strategic dilemmas.”