By Aaron Blake - 06/14/06 12:00 AM EDT
When Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y) was locked into a tough reelection battle in 2004, he received more than $150,000 in support from fellow Democrats in Congress. When he was primed to knock off an incumbent in 2002, they contributed $85,000 to the cause.
This year, November is looking to be somewhat less stressful for Bishop, and he might not need such help. But that doesn’t mean he’s not hitting the phones with the same fundraising vigor he brought to the last two elections, preparing for the worst and hoping his efforts might be used to help Democratic challengers and other vulnerable incumbents.
Bishop is one of a handful of 2004 Democratic incumbent targets this cycle banking at or above past fundraising levels despite some lackluster challenges and an environment that appears to favor Democrats. With many of them relatively new to the House, they’re working to cement their incumbency and could use the money to improve their standing within the party and help their colleagues.
“I am preparing as if I’m going to receive the same amount of heat in 2006 as I did in 2004,” Bishop said. “I’ve received a great deal of generosity from my colleagues in the past, and I’m ready to give back if I can.”
Bishop’s cash on hand is up more than $125,000 from where it was at this point in 2004, to about $560,000. He has raised $866,500 this cycle, which is just a hair less than the $868,275 he had at this point in 2004, and he’s aiming to raise the same $2 million he did in 2004. His likely opponent, meanwhile, has just $30,000, about one-eighth of what his 2004 opponent had at this point.
The situation is similar to those of Reps. Stephanie Herseth (D-S.D.), Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) and Jim Matheson (D-Utah). All have been in Congress fewer than eight years and faced tough reelection bids each year.
Democratic Reps. Leonard Boswell (Iowa), Chet Edwards (Texas) and Jim Marshall (Ga.), who were 2004 targets and have better-funded opponents at this point than the others, are far exceeding their 2004 fundraising levels. Boswell has about one-third more cash on hand, Edwards has 50 percent more and Marshall has almost twice as much.
All seven come from districts that voted for President Bush in 2004, and all but Bishop and Marshall are part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline program to help vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
Campaign-finance experts say vulnerable incumbents can also use fundraising to scare off potential challengers and rival national committees by making themselves look invulnerable and their races look noncompetitive. They can also hang on to the money for future elections or use it for political chits in hopes of securing chairmanships or other positions of influence.
One option that has been increasingly used in recent years is contributing to other candidates’ campaigns. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, giving between campaign committees increased from $11 million in 1996 to $86.5 million in 2004. The soft-money ban preceded a $30 million jump.
If Democrats keep or increase their momentum come November, formerly vulnerable incumbents could help Democratic challengers with the extra money they’ve raised. And chits become more valuable when a member’s party is in the majority.
In addition, each race a lawmaker wins further entrenches their incumbency, making future challenges more difficult.
That is important for members like Herseth, who won both a special election and reelection in 2004. While those races cost millions of dollars on both sides, her current challenger, Bruce Whalen, had just $14,000 on hand as of mid-May. Matheson has been in Congress for six years, and Moore was elected in 1998.
Edwards has been touting his fundraising frequently on his campaign website. By the end of last year, he had twice as much money as he had at that point in the 2004 cycle. His most recent reports show that he has upwards of $1.25 million on hand, more than any other major 2004 Democratic incumbent target.
Edwards’s campaign manager, Chris Turner, said the fundraising success reflects the congressman’s increasing strength within the district but added that he doubts much will be left over to contribute to other candidates.
“We always run a very aggressive media and grassroots campaign, and we take every race very seriously,” Turner said. “And this one will be no exception.”
Of the seven Democratic incumbents mentioned, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) named only Marshall’s and Boswell’s races when asked last week about Republicans’ main targets. He instead focused on open seats in Vermont, Ohio and Illinois, along with freshman Reps. John Barrow (Ga.) and Melissa Bean (Ill.).
Regarding Moore’s district in particular, he said Kansas politics have proved to be quite challenging to Republicans, who have consistently launched aggressive bids to unseat the incumbent.
“We’ll just have to see what happens there,” Reynolds said. “Some of my hopes in past races have been dashed.”
Some say steady fundraising could prove beneficial for all in an environment that could turn out to be anti-incumbent instead of just anti-Republican. Pollster John Zogby recently released a study showing that Americans give their Democratic and Republican members of the House similar marks, despite overall gains for Democrats in most other areas.
“This could turn out to be a bad year for incumbents if Democrats don’t provide an alternative” on things like the war in Iraq, Zogby said.