Money chase is unstinting for control of Senate in 110th

Scandal and talk of a “culture of corruption” do not seem to be reflected in the hunt for cash in the fight for Senate seats.

Scandal and talk of a “culture of corruption” do not seem to be reflected in the hunt for cash in the fight for Senate seats.

From Rhode Island to Montana to Missouri to Arizona, Republican senators facing competitive or potentially competitive races hold big money leads. And Democrats seeking reelection in Michigan, Florida, Nebraska and Washington state are outpacing their Republican challengers.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) has taken in more money than his GOP primary challenger, Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey, ending the fourth quarter of 2005 with nearly $1.8 million in the bank compared to Laffey’s $831,000.

Chafee, seeking a second full term, raised $732,000 in the three months from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31. Laffey raised $311,000 in the same period. Of Chafee’s intake, $330,000 was a loan by the candidate to his campaign. Laffey lent himself $360,000 in the previous quarter.

Democrats in the Senate race in Rhode Island also trailed Chafee, with former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse banking $1.6 million and Secretary of State Matt Brown $481,000, after having raised $419,000 and $282,000, respectively, in the quarter.

In Missouri, Sen. Jim Talent (R), seeking a second term, raised more than $1 million, ending the year with $4.7 million. His Democratic opponent, former gubernatorial candidate Claire McCaskill, brought in $951,000 and has $1.3 million on hand.

In Michigan, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) raised $1.3 million and has $5.7 million in the bank. Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, the Republican who has eclipsed the Rev. Keith Butler in the fundraising race in the GOP primary, raised $800,000, wrapping up the year with $760,000.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), one of Democrats’ top targets in 2006, garnered close to $2.5 million in the quarter, bringing his total available to nearly $7.8 million. His leading Democratic opponent, state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., raised nearly $1.7 million and ended the year with more than $3.4 million on hand.

And in Nebraska, which the GOP likes to think of as one of the reddest of the red states in the country, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson’s fundraising has towered over that of his three Republican rivals. In the fourth quarter, he raised $709,000, and he has nearly $3.2 million in his campaign coffers.

None of the Republican rivals — businessman Pete Ricketts, former GOP head David Kramer and former state Attorney General Don Stenberg — ended 2005 with more than $211,000 in the bank. (In part, that’s because Ricketts, who lent his campaign $1.4 million, is airing television ads.)

Laffey’s campaign manager, John Dodenhoff, acknowledged that challengers cannot expect to raise as much as incumbents. With his name recognition, his power to dole out favors to local officials and the support he enjoys from national Republicans, Chafee enjoys numerous advantages.

But, Dodenhoff said, echoing campaigns across the country, his candidate does not need to raise as much as the incumbent. He just needs to get his message out. Also, Dodenhoff said, Rhode Island has only one media market, Providence, and is small, meaning the candidate can reach many of the state’s 1 million people personally.

Dodenhoff said Laffey needs to have raised $3 million by Election Day to be viable. “When you talk to the quote-unquote ‘experts,’ that’s the number that gets bandied about,” he said. “Ultimately, we can have a conversation after the election. We don’t really know until the final meltdown.”

Nelson spokeswoman Marcia Cady said the senator, whom she portrayed as “the voice of reason,” would draw on his tenure in office to win a second term.

That tenure has entailed navigating a careful middle course, including his vote yesterday for Judge Samuel Alito to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court.

Ultimately, incumbents’ money advantage appear to reinforce the long-held view in Washington that open seats are where the real action takes place on Election Day. This year, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and Tennessee have senators who are retiring.

Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), running for Senate in the only state where a Republican, Majority Leader Bill Frist, is stepping down, raised more than $1 million in the fourth quarter, more than was raised by former Rep. Van Hilleary and Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, both Republicans seeking the Senate seat. Figures for former Rep. Ed Bryant (R), also in the race, were unavailable. Corker has $4.7 million in the bank, compared to Ford’s almost $4.3 million.

Many would-be senators have said money is simply the vehicle that enables candidates to make their ideas known to voters. What really matters, these candidates insist, is convincing people that their proposals, about everything from national security to the National Park Service, are better than those of their rivals.

Ford said he has been running relentlessly on his platform, a carefully calibrated mix of old-style populism and mainstream Democratic politics. He opposed the filibuster of Alito, backed by more liberal Democrats, but also said he would have voted against the nominee had he been in the Senate.

Asked how he plans to win in a state that twice backed George W. Bush, even against Tennessean Al Gore, Ford said simply: “I’m going to get more votes than my opponent.”