Large campaign war chests don’t mean as much as they used to

Lawmakers who have huge campaign war chests should not rest easy this year.

In less volatile campaign seasons, large cash-on-hand advantages are like a security blanket. But the waves of 2006 and 2008 — and another one expected this November — have proved that money isn’t everything.

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A handful of political experts tracking the 2010 election cycle say incumbency has become enough of a liability this year to trump the conventional advantage of money in the bank.

Longtime campaigns and elections observer, Brookings Institute Vice-Chairman of Governance Studies Darrell West said “money cannot trump message.”

The analysts say the message resonating this cycle has been: Throw the incumbents out.

And three well-funded incumbent senators learned that lesson the hard way.

Earlier this week, Alaska’s senior Sen. Lisa Murkowski conceded to her lesser-funded GOP primary opponent Joe Miller, after it was apparent she didn’t have the votes.

Murkowski spent just under $2 million to lose by a whisker to lose to Tea Party endorsed candidate Joe Miller, who spent just under $200,000. Monday-morning quarterbacks say she should have spent more.

The Tea Party Express doled out almost $500,000 of their independent expenditure funds, to get people out to vote, and “engaged its nationwide membership to make calls on behalf of Miller,” political director Bryan Showyer explained in an interview with The Hill last week.

Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) also lost his bid for reelection in his state’s party nominating convention to a Tea Party challenger with far less financial resources. According to the most recent filings, Bennett spent nearly $4 million on his losing bid to challenger Mike Lee, who had spent less than $1 million.

“Typically in a primary, you have challengers who aren’t very well known so the money obstacle is getting known, but if there is a big grassroots movement behind them, you can get known through other means by having the Tea Party come in. And some of the challengers that did well had a lot of non-financial resources and volunteers who helped them, so I think that was the great equalizing factor,” West said.

House Democrats have huge cash advantages on their Republican counterparts, and they have repeatedly touted that fact in countering predictions that the GOP will win control of the lower chamber this fall.

Claremont-McKenna political science professor Jack Pitney said, “Victory doesn’t necessarily go to the candidate that spends the most. What matters is whether the challenger has enough resources to reach the voters, to get a message out, and those resources don’t have to be as great as their better financed candidate.”

The same can be said of the House and Senate fundraising committees.

In 2006, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spent $178 million compared to Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) nearly $140 million.

The 22 GOP incumbents that lost that year, when Democrats picked up 30 seats to reclaim control of the House, spent $2,788,319 compared to $1,819,325 from victorious challengers.

Also in 2006, six Senate incumbents spent $16,559,407 only to lose to lesser-funded challengers that spent $10,014,717, according to data compiled by opensecrets.org.

“There have been well-funded incumbents who have lost to challengers with far fewer resources. But those challengers were riding a public opinion wave that compensated for the lack of money,” West explained.

Party-switching Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) raised more than $15 million, spending $13 million in his unsuccessful attempt to win his primary against Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.). Sestak raised $3.6 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Rutgers political scientist Ross K. Baker said it’s better to have a huge war chest, but incumbents should be aware that money is not as intimidating when the electorate is angry.

“I think it’s the prudent incumbent with the large war chest that reappraises its deterrent value, obviously they are going to use it but I don’t think they can take quite so much comfort as they used to in it,” Baker said.


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