Do Democrats Face a Campaign Finance Conundrum?

In the Senate, they’ve elevated the issue but their own war chests are full.

WASHINGTON - MAY 03: (L-R) U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) (L) and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) listen during a dedication ceremony of the statue of former President Gerald Ford at the Rotunda of the Capitol May 3, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The statue will become a part of the National Statuary Hall Collection of the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Michael Catalin
May 1, 2014, 5:05 p.m.

Cam­paign fin­ance is tak­ing cen­ter stage in Amer­ic­an polit­ics once again. The Su­preme Court rolled back ag­greg­ate spend­ing lim­its. Sen­ate Demo­crats held a hear­ing this week fea­tur­ing former Su­preme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id has made spend­ing by the Koch broth­ers a cam­paign is­sue.

All of this might give the im­pres­sion that Sen­ate Demo­crats are dis­ad­vant­aged in the money game, but that is not ne­ces­sar­ily true. In fact, by some counts, they are ahead.

With the rise of so-called dark money groups — or­gan­iz­a­tions that aren’t re­quired to dis­close donors and spend­ing — the money pic­ture is murky. But when it comes to money that is dis­closed and tracked by the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion, Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate can­did­ates raised about $165 mil­lion through March, while GOP can­did­ates raised roughly $149 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent num­bers.

Demo­crats also have a slight edge in in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures, with $34.9 mil­lion go­ing to­ward lib­er­al causes and $34.2 mil­lion go­ing to­ward con­ser­vat­ive causes, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics.

With a Sen­ate elec­tion land­scape that fa­vors the GOP, and red-state Demo­crats already play­ing de­fense, Re­pub­lic­ans hope to stretch the field. One way they’re do­ing that is by spend­ing money from their lead­er­ship PACs on can­did­ates that could be vi­able.

“It has to do with nom­in­at­ing enough really good can­did­ates in states like New Hamp­shire and Iowa and Michigan and Ore­gon that will have a chance to win,” said Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der of Ten­ness­ee.

Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s lead­er­ship PAC, the Bluegrass Com­mit­tee, has writ­ten $190,000 in checks to Re­pub­lic­ans in Sen­ate races, ac­cord­ing to the cen­ter, in­clud­ing to Terri Lynn Land in Michigan and Mike Mc­Fad­den in Min­nesota. In Ore­gon, Mc­Con­nell also con­trib­uted to Mon­ica We­hby, the Re­pub­lic­an doc­tor vy­ing for the party’s nom­in­a­tion and the chance to take on Demo­crat­ic Sen. Jeff Merkley in Novem­ber.

But stretch­ing the field comes at a price. Bet­ting on a can­did­ate in a state like Ore­gon, where Pres­id­ent Obama won by 12 points, could mean less money in a state like Louisi­ana, where Mitt Rom­ney won hand­ily. “It might have the ef­fect of cost­ing the Demo­crats more money, but it will cost the Re­pub­lic­ans as well,” Al­ex­an­der said.

For their part, Demo­crats are try­ing to stem the ex­pan­sion of the elect­or­al map in­to blue states like Col­or­ado, Min­nesota, and New Hamp­shire. Re­id’s Search­light Lead­er­ship PAC has spent $235,000 back­ing Demo­crats, for in­stance, and the Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity PAC, a group run by former Re­id aides, has spent $7.7 mil­lion in in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures against Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing Scott Brown in New Hamp­shire.

In some cases, lead­er­ship money will be fol­lowed by spend­ing from out­side groups. “If you think that they’re just kind of do­ing it be­cause they’re on their own? No,” said Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Be­gich of Alaska, who is in one of the toughest reelec­tion fights this year. “I guar­an­tee you if they’re put­ting money in there now, the Koch broth­ers and Karl Rove and com­pany will be next.”

Demo­crats have made out­side spend­ing in states like Alaska, Louisi­ana, and North Car­o­lina a key cam­paign is­sue. Re­id reg­u­larly ham­mers the Koch broth­ers from the Sen­ate floor, al­lud­ing to the group’s “tentacles,” and even coin­ing terms like “Kochtopus.”

The is­sue of cam­paign fin­ance has be­come such a part of the Demo­crats’ elec­tion-year rhet­or­ic that Re­id has prom­ised a vote on Sen. Tom Ud­all’s con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment, which would al­low for reg­u­la­tion of cam­paign cash. Re­pub­lic­ans counter that Demo­crats are be­ing hy­po­crit­ic­al.

Last week, for ex­ample, the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee, when asked wheth­er Demo­crats are es­sen­tially co­ordin­at­ing with out­side groups — which is pro­hib­ited — poin­ted out that in New Hamp­shire, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s cam­paign seemed to be shop­ping an ad script to out­side spend­ers. Re­pub­lic­ans have also charged that Re­id’s at­tacks on the Koch broth­ers from the Sen­ate floor are polit­ic­ally mo­tiv­ated, and have fired off a com­plaint to the Sen­ate Eth­ics Com­mit­tee.

In re­turn, Demo­crats ac­cuse Re­pub­lic­ans of drop­ping polit­ic­al bread crumbs for out­side groups. But Re­pub­lic­ans say they’re only copy­ing Demo­crat­ic tac­tics. “We’re rep­lic­at­ing what Demo­crats have done the last two cycles,” said Sen. Richard Burr of North Car­o­lina. “It’s a mat­ter of of­fense and de­fense, and we’re on of­fense.”

In­deed, Re­pub­lic­ans need to net six seats to take the ma­jor­ity in the fall. It could well be with­in their grasp, with prom­ising can­did­ates in states like Col­or­ado, where Rep. Cory Gard­ner is tak­ing on in­cum­bent Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Ud­all, and New Hamp­shire, where Brown, the former sen­at­or from Mas­sachu­setts, is tak­ing on Shaheen. Mc­Con­nell and oth­ers have also donated to Mc­Fad­den in Min­nesota as well as We­hby in Ore­gon, a sign those races could be com­pet­it­ive, law­makers say.

Demo­crats say Re­pub­lic­ans are try­ing to wear their re­sources thin in an at­tempt to knock off vul­ner­able law­makers in states like Alaska. “I think the is­sue is they’re try­ing to do a scat­ter-gun ap­proach so they can get bil­lions from these guys as sec­ond­ary money,” Be­gich said, re­fer­ring to out­side groups. “And they know that we have lim­ited re­sources. And they’re try­ing to stretch.”

But not all Demo­crat­ic law­makers are wor­ried. Where red-state Demo­crats some­times high­light the dif­fer­ences between them­selves and their party — think Sen. Mark Pry­or of Arkan­sas and his op­pos­i­tion to the Demo­crats’ min­im­um-wage bill — blue-state Demo­crats have a some­what easi­er time tak­ing aim at Re­pub­lic­ans. Merkley, for ex­ample, says he is not sweat­ing Mc­Con­nell and oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans spend­ing in his race.

“It doesn’t con­cern me,” he said. “It shows that Mc­Con­nell is ideo­lo­gic­ally aligned with Mon­ica We­hby. I don’t think there’s any big sur­prise there.”

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