Ambitious Dem leaders shower candidates with campaign cash

House Democratic leaders are showering millions of dollars in campaign cash on their colleagues this cycle ahead of two key elections this month.

To be sure, Democratic leaders have spilled their war chests primarily to better the chances of the party picking up seats when voters go to the polls on Nov. 6 — and, indeed, they still insist they can win back the lower chamber despite the long odds.

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But on Nov. 29, House Democrats will hold another election, this one to determine the party leaders in the 113th Congress. And with speculation swirling around the future of long-time Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), her lieutenants — as well as a handful of young and ambitious Democrats — are positioning themselves for a possible leadership shakeup. Part of that jockeying entails spreading campaign funds they hope the recipients won't soon forget.

The sums are impressive.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, has donated more than $1.6 million directly to House candidates this cycle between his campaign committee and his leadership PAC, according to his campaign office. Hoyer has been standing behind Pelosi for more than a decade, after he challenged her unsuccessfully for the minority whip spot in 2001, and is eager to move up the ladder should Pelosi step down.

Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, isn't far behind in the disbursement category, having spent almost $1.3 million directly on House candidates this cycle, his office said this week. Clyburn, who launched a short-lived run against Hoyer for the No. 2 spot following the 2010 elections, also has no intention of ceding power in the next Congress. He indicated earlier this year that he "might" try to seek a higher leadership post in November.

"People may say they'll put the interest of the caucus before them," he said in May, laying out his credentials. "But I have demonstrated it." The Hoyer-Clyburn contest in 2010 never came to a vote after Pelosi brokered a deal, giving Clyburn his current assistant Democratic leader post.

The figures don't reflect the money the top Democrats have given to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which also totals in the millions of dollars between them. The advantage of giving to the DCCC is that the donations are unlimited, whereas contributions to individual candidates are capped. The disadvantage is that leaders relinquish their power to dictate where the money is spent — and the donations take a turn toward the anonymous.

Viveca Novak, spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors campaign funding, said party leaders — and leadership hopefuls — like to target individual candidates "in part to build loyalty" and to welcome rank-and-file members "to be part of a leader's inner circle."

"These candidates will feel grateful for the money," Novak said Friday.

Such contributions can also pay dividends well after leadership elections, she said, as the winners try to rally support, for instance, behind a difficult vote.

"In fact, votes can be traded for campaign cash," Novak said.

Further down the leadership totem, another group of ambitious Democrats appears to be well-versed in those dynamics. Rep. John Larson (Conn.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, has directly helped Democratic contenders this cycle to the tune of $354,000, split roughly evenly between his campaign committee and his leadership PAC, according to his office.

Larson's term as Caucus chairman expires at the end of the year, and it's unclear what leadership role the Connecticut Democrat would adopt next year as the biennial game of musical chairs plays out following the election.

Christopher Licata, Larson's campaign manager, said this week that Larson "is focused on winning back the majority," and not beyond — a message that echoes those coming from most other Democratic leaders, including Pelosi, who have been coy about their future course. But it's a rare lawmaker who steps quietly from a leadership spot back to the rank-and-file.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), the vice-chairman of the Caucus, is widely expected to fill Larson's seat, a move Pelosi all but guaranteed in September. Becerra this cycle has given $259,500 to House candidates, $235,500 from his PAC and $24,000 from his campaign committee, according to his office.

Meanwhile, the race to replace Becerra has emerged as one of the few certainties of the House leadership process next month, with Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Jared Polis (Colo.) already announcing their bids, and Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.) expected to crowd the field.

Of the three, Crowley has spent the most on House candidates directly this cycle, with a tally of at least $562,250 between his campaign and his PAC, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) documents. Polis, who dropped the PAC option in favor of running a series of fundraising committees, including the DCCC's Blue to Red panel, has dispersed roughly $226,000 to Democrats fighting for lower-chamber seats, his office said. And Lee has spent at least $53,000 on House candidates this cycle, according to FEC documents, with more than half of that coming in the last three months alone.

There are other aspiring Democrats waiting in the wings. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), the head of the Democratic National Committee, and Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the ranking member of the House Budget panel, are widely seen as top contenders to move up the leadership ranks.

Helping their cause, both have proven themselves to be effective fundraisers, and generous gift-givers. Indeed, Wasserman Schultz has given $586,000 to House candidates this Congress, according to her office, and Van Hollen has showered an additional $226,000, according to his.

Pelosi, the party's most prolific fundraiser, singled out both Wasserman Schultz and Van Hollen this summer as the face of the party's future.

"Certainly we will see a generational shift, and that will be good," Pelosi said during the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C.

She gave no indication when that would happen.