The time has come for congressional candidates to shell out or get out. With just weeks remaining in the 2014 campaign season, vulnerable incumbents and optimistic challengers are sitting on six-figure bank accounts with everything on the line — and nothing worth saving for by the morning of Nov. 5.
The latest round of FEC fundraising disclosures give officeholders, including a pair of Democrats facing tough challenges, the head-to-head advantage on paper, but Republicans say those disparities were expected, and claim the momentum is on their side.
National analysts say Democrats have begun scaling down their expectations in U.S. House races this year, dropping their focus from possible pick-up seats to a defense of sitting lawmakers. That could be good news for DFL U.S. Reps. Collin Peterson and Rick Nolan, who face difficult contests in Minnesota’s 7th and 8th Congressional Districts, respectively. Peterson and Nolan’s fundraising edge over their opponents will help their chances, but both Democrats risk being drowned out by conservative outside spending groups that smell blood in the water.
Republicans, meanwhile, are seeking what campaign leaders call a “governing majority” of 245 House seats, a number that requires at least a dozen pick-ups on Election Day. The aggressive outlook is good news for state Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, widely seen as Peterson’s strongest opponent in years, and Stewart Mills, whose candidacy against Nolan has consistently garnered national media coverage.
Peterson raised $344,000 during the third quarter and reported $761,000 in cash on hand at the close of the reporting period. Both numbers are significantly outpacing Westrom, who collected $248,000 and held $399,000 at the start of October.
As is often the case for Peterson, the Democratic leader on the House Agriculture Committee, a large portion of his money came from agricultural and food industry organizations. Peterson’s biggest combined expense went to a Washington, D.C., firm for the production and placement of a TV ad campaign, which ran upwards of $175,000.
Westrom said he is not surprised to be trailing the 12-term incumbent in financial terms.
“[Peterson] has been hugely supported by special interests, and not the type of local donors that have concerns and issues in the district,” Westrom said.
Westrom, meanwhile, took in a number of donations from conservative campaign funds, including the Generation Y Fund, affiliated with U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Indiana. The veteran state lawmaker — Westrom was first elected to the Minnesota House in 1996 — has focused his spending on direct mail and staffing needs, but did produce one TV ad that focuses on his personal success story after a farming accident suffered as a teenager permanently blinded Westrom.
Westrom said he planned to focus on “positive messaging,” but attack ads paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) have slammed Peterson for his use of cars and planes to travel the district.
Nancy Larson, chair of the 7th Congressional District DFL, said those spots are “distorted” and “pushing the bounds of factual information,” and said voters in the district are unlikely to respond to them.
Westrom is said to be leading Peterson 44 percent to 43 percent, according to an internal poll the campaign released Thursday. Larson thought those figures were “curious,” especially coming just days after the latest from Survey USA/KSTP, which polled likely voters earlier this month, and gave Peterson a 50 percent to 41 percent advantage.
Both polls are a “positive sign” for the challenger, according to Westrom, who added that he is awaiting the results of yet another survey.
“The final poll is November 4,” Westrom said, “and we are working very hard to win.”
The frankly spoken Nolan has been one of the most outspoken critics of the emphasis on fundraising in modern politics, but seems to have gotten the hang of it. Nolan’s $525,000 holdings are nearly twice the amount in the campaign bank account for Mills, who reported $255,000. Nolan raised about $558,000 from July through September, easily surpassing Mills, who took in a respectable $346,000.
Some $93,000 of Nolan’s total for the quarter came thanks to ActBlue, a Democratic bundling outfit that matches small donations from individuals with liberal candidates in need. The vast majority of the $657,000 Nolan spent over that three months went for television ad campaigns: Nolan’s campaign fund paid a combined $527,000 to GMMB Inc., a Washington D.C.-based consulting and advocacy firm.
For his part, Mills showed further willingness to self-fund his bid to unseat Nolan. A pair of third-quarter loans to the campaign added up to $128,000, bringing Mills’ total to $200,000.
Republican activist Justin Krych said even an incumbent known for his distaste for fundraising would be expected to lead a first-time challenger, and pointed out that former DFL U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar had outraised his Republican challenger Chip Cravaack in 2010.
“We didn’t compete financially — at all — in 2010, when we took out a 34-year incumbent,” Kyrch said.
Outside spending will probably more than make up for Mills’ disadvantage, and FEC records also document recent six-figure ad buys from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and NRCC, which has been hitting Nolan for votes on immigration policy and welfare funding. Even with that help, Krych said a better indication of district activity could be seen in grass-roots efforts from volunteers. In that work, Krych said, the Mills campaign has been “incredibly cooperative” with local GOP basic political operating units (BPOUs), which was more than he could say for some high-ranking campaigns in the past.
DFL activist Rick Edwards is also comfortable measuring campaign progress by volunteer activity. Though the 8th CD DFL had a weekend fundraiser at Spirit Mountain in Duluth, Edwards said he was paying more attention to the party’s door-knocking and phone banks. Democrats are hoping to avoid the drop-off in voter turnout that led to Cravaack’s upset victory in 2010.
“I think it’s being done very intentionally,” Edwards said, describing new training for the party’s front-line volunteers. “We’re taking new approaches to talking to people about the importance of it.”
Those DFL voters will probably need little convincing that Nolan’s re-election is uncertain following the Thursday night release of Survey USA’s 8th CD poll, which gave Mills a 50 percent to 41 percent lead over the incumbent; by Friday morning, the KSTP story detailing the results had been repackaged as part of a Republican Party of Minnesota press release.
Just weeks ago, even the most optimistic Democrats were not hopeful about stealing this seat from Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline, who is facing a rematch with former DFL legislator Mike Obermueller. Kline handled Obermueller easily in 2012, otherwise a historically good year for Democrats, and had a huge financial advantage of the DFL candidate. The latter fact still holds true: As of the third quarter’s end, Kline had $1.76 million in cash on hand — roughly six times as much as Obermueller’s $278,000.
But at least a few eyes have begun to turn toward the suburban district, thanks to comedian and talk show host Bill Maher, who singled out Kline for his “Flip a District” segment. Maher, who conceded he knew little about Obermueller at the time, has since visited Northfield for a taping of his HBO show, hoping the added heat would help turn the tide against Kline.
Maher’s last-ditch efforts are a waste of time and money, according to area Republican activist Jeff Lorsung, who said voters know and trust Kline, now in his sixth term.
“It certainly hasn’t moved the needle,” Lorsung said.
He added that “anything Obermueller, Maher or the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee]” is doing in the 2nd CD is probably more about the future than the current campaign. Kline, like Collin Peterson, consistently outperforms the partisan index in his district, and his retirement could turn the seat into a toss-up.
“When he’s gone, then they hope to flip a district,” Lorsung said.