Preparing for fight that won't happen

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) trounced his Democratic opponent last year by 50 percentage points. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) destroyed his general-election rival, 67 percent to 33. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.) fared almost as well; his Democratic rival won 34 percent of the vote to Gallegly’s 62.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) trounced his Democratic opponent last year by 50 percentage points. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) destroyed his general-election rival, 67 percent to 33. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.) fared almost as well; his Democratic rival won 34 percent of the vote to Gallegly’s 62.

But all three — like scores of other House members and senators who have repeatedly won slam-dunk reelections — spent the first three months of 2005 raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash, mobilizing for a race that is unlikely to materialize.

The year-round money-raising machine, some campaign-finance reformers, elected officials and former congressional candidates say, fuels the impression that Congress is run by a permanent class of incumbents who stay in office as long as they see fit.

“The system for financing congressional elections today is extraordinarily unbalanced, with almost all of the money going to incumbents, very little going to challengers, and therefore less and less competitive races taking place, particularly in the House of Representatives,” said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21 and a supporter of the 2002 McCain-Feingold reform bill.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), for instance, who faces the voters next year, won his eighth term, in 2000, with 73 percent of the vote. While Massachusetts is not allergic to backing a Republican in a statewide race — its recent governors have come from the GOP — Democrats, and Kennedys especially, are an institution of Bay State political life.

That didn’t stop Kennedy from raising more than $2.1 million in the first quarter, with individuals giving more than $1.8 million and a slew of interest groups from the labor, healthcare and defense sectors, among others, giving just over $267,000. At that pace, the senator would raise far more than the $11.6 million he took in for his last campaign.

Similarly, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D) won her last election in Illinois’s overwhelmingly Democratic 9th District with 175,282 votes — nearly 120,000 votes more than her Republican foe, Kurt Eckhardt — and reeled in just shy of $200,000 from January through March, including $172,000 from individual donors and close to $25,000 from political action committees.

As Israel put it, echoing the views of many Democrats and Republicans, “I anticipate that every race is going to be a tough race and that I’m going to need the resources to get my message out.”

Like many on the Hill, Israel said, he is forever fearful of an aggressive and politically talented opponent popping up on the horizon. While some may focus on his most recent victory, he said, he remembers when he was first elected to Congress, in 2000.

“When I came here in 2000 I won with 48 percent,” Israel said. “I was the lowest-performing Democrat in Congress. When I think about my politics back home, I don’t think 67 percent. I remember 48 percent.”

Paul Welday, the campaign chairman for Rep. Joseph Knollenberg (R-Mich.), said the congressman — like most every member — constantly frets about a “self-funder” coming along who can dump $2 million or $3 million in personal resources on a race.

Elected officials are also sensitive to how their votes in Congress are received back home and, particularly, to what their political base thinks. Welday noted that Knollenberg voted last year against the constitutional ban on gay marriage, prompting some angry reactions.

“There was a Republican activist … who started talking about mounting a primary challenge against him in 2006, so we take those kinds of threats very seriously,” he said, adding that the congressman subsequently mapped out an aggressive fundraising plan.

Other members of Congress said they used their excess campaign funds to help fellow candidates through leadership PACs — which, in turn, helps these members rise through the party ranks. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), for one, recently set up TENNPAC, having raised $140,000 in the first quarter even though he’s not up for reelection until 2008.

Schakowsky said the extra campaign money enables her to help local Democrats. The congresswoman also said that last year she helped organize thousands of volunteers from northern Illinois who traveled to Wisconsin and elsewhere for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

Some politicians are laying the groundwork for future races. A spokesman for Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) said the congressman — who raised $214,000 in the first quarter, leaving him with more than $1.2 million in the bank — would run for the Senate seat held by Frank Lautenberg should the senator retire in 2008.

Rothman is typical of New Jersey congressmen. With Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) vacating his seat to run for governor and Lautenberg now 81, several House members are pondering statewide bids, with Robert Menendez (D) raking in $1 million; Mike Ferguson (R), $346,000; and Bill Pascrell (D), $213,000.

Gallegly — who raised just under $100,000 from January through March and was ranked the 161st highest fundraiser out of all House candidates by the website politicalmoneyline.com — pointed out that a redistricting drive in his home state of California could create problems for him.

“I don’t want to be caught having to go out and having to raise a lot of money to fight a tough campaign,” said the congressman, whose closest race in recent years came in 2000. That year, Gallegly won 54 percent of the vote, compared to his Democratic rival’s 41; the Republican raised just over $1 million, while the Democrat, attorney Michael Case, brought in nearly $730,000.