No Rival and Plenty of Cash? Don’t Rest Easy

by Nathan L. Gonzales June 27, 2011 · 9:30 AM EDT

With millions of dollars in the bank and no challenger, the path to re-election looks like a freshly paved freeway for some Senate incumbents. But using recent history as a road map, those factors can be poor predictors of electoral success and certainly don't guarantee another term.

With just days to go before the June filing deadline for campaign finance reports, incumbents are scrambling to raise money in an effort to demonstrate their political strength and to impress reporters and supporters. The political media can't resist comparing incumbent fundraising figures to their opponents' even though that can be a shortcut to poor analysis.

Challengers simply don't need as much money as incumbents; they just need enough cash to be viable.

The 16 successful Senate challengers over the past decade spent, on average, just 75 percent of what the incumbent invested, according to a Roll Call analysis. Only three of those challengers outspent their incumbent rival, and not by much.

At this point last cycle, then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) had almost $2.9 million in the bank and no challenger in a state that President Barack Obama had won by 14 points. Four years ago, then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) had $1.8 million in the bank and then-Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) had $3.5 million on hand. Neither had serious challengers, but now each has a former in front of their names.

Six years ago, then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) had a $4 million advantage over Bob Casey (D), and then-Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) had nearly $3 million in the bank and no rival. And eight years ago, then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) had almost $2.9 million and no opponent.

All of them lost.

When it comes to successful Senate candidates, it's not how much money you have, but when you have it and how you spend it. And the political climate can trump everything.

Last cycle in Wisconsin, Feingold and wealthy businessman Ron Johnson (R) each spent about $15.5 million. But the Senator had spent so much money running his campaign operation for six years that only a third of that money ended up on television at the end of the race.

"If a candidate is competitive in June, July, August, the money will be there in the end," National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Jesmer said about challenger races.

"When you're raising money late, it's all going for message," said J.B. Poersch, former execsutive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He said challengers can often avoid the burden of costly overhead, and late money can be quickly translated to television ads.

So even though Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Bob Menendez (N.J.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Maria Cantwell (Wash.) as well as Republican Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.) have considerable financial advantages now, none of them can rule out a competitive race next fall.

Democratic strategists are working with Senators who have growing war chests and no declared opponents to "strike the right balance" in their campaign spending.

"The old premise is that you raise a ton of money and save every last penny until the very end," current DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil said. "Now, wisely investing in infrastructure in the off-year can save you money in the long run."

Even with increased media attention and scrutiny on Senate recruiting, there is still time for each party to get candidates into key races. Of those 16 successful Senate challengers over the past decade, 12 weren't even in the race at this point in their cycles.

Some of those eventual candidates, such as Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), already had statewide profiles and could afford to delay their entry. But many of them, including Johnson, Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), had low statewide name identification when they began their races.

Then-Rep. John Boozman (R) hadn't yet entered the Arkansas Senate race at this point in the 2010 cycle, but he went on to defeat Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) in the general election, spending only a quarter of the money she spent in the process. Both candidates spent money in competitive primaries, and Boozman didn't need much to ride the electoral wave to victory in the general election.

Not only were Hagan, Merkley and Webb not yet in the race, they used only half the cash spent by the Senators they defeated.

Democratic strategists are quick to point out Sen. Debbie Stabenow's (D) early positioning in Michigan. She had $3 million in the bank through March and no challenger, but Stabenow well understands the limits of those assets.

Almost a dozen years ago, GOP Sen. Spencer Abraham was shattering previous fundraising records in Michigan. He held a cash advantage of $3 million to $860,000 over Stabenow, then a Member of the House. Sixteen months later, Stabenow defeated Abraham in a very close race.

In fact, of the five GOP incumbents featured in a July 1999 Roll Call article about Senators turning in a "strong six months of fundraising," including Abraham, only Santorum survived.

Comparing financial figures between incumbents and challengers is too simple because it fails to take into account spending by outside groups. Even a dozen years ago, Stabenow spent about 60 percent of Abraham's total but benefited from an influx of money from EMILY's List, a group which seeks to elect Democratic pro-choice women.

"You don't have to go dollar for dollar," Poersch said. "But it helps that someone else is at the table."

Even when Democratic challengers were being outspent in 2006 and 2008, the DSCC was consistently dropping more money on races than its GOP counterpart.

And when challengers are matching an incumbent in fundraising early, that doesn't guarantee a Senator's defeat.

In 2008, then-Rep. Tom Allen (D) stayed competitive with Republican Sen. Susan Collins in fundraising throughout the race, but it wasn't enough to defeat her.

His candidacy started well. Allen had $1.7 million in cash on hand through the first six months of the off-year compared with the $2.3 million that Collins had banked. But Allen had a bigger challenge. As the race went on, Collins' job approval rating remained above 60 percent. When Allen failed to close the polling gap, fundraising became much more difficult.

"If the race tightens up, the money moves," Allen told Roll Call in an interview. "Contributors are more likely to spend on someone who looks like they can win."

As the second-quarter fundraising reports are released next month, it's important to remember that nebulous Senate races can still form, and there's plenty of time for hot races to cool off.