By the end of this week, the financial status of every federal campaign in America will be known, as the FEC deadline for reporting second quarter fundraising totals looms this coming Thursday.
With established political pundits painting a fairly dire portrait of the electoral climate in the House of Representatives, and with polls for the upcoming elections not looking a whole hell of a lot better, Democrats are scuffling for something upon which to bolster their 2010 fortunes in the lower chamber.
A financial edge, which is usually a given for the majority party, may well be that saving grace.
Or at least it could be. If the electoral climate is as bad as most independent analysts suspect it to be, recent history has shown that a financial edge does not exactly insulate a candidate from electoral pain.
The past four midterm electoral cycles, as it relates to the House of Representatives, have created two "wave elections" with significant shifts in the balance of power (1994 and 2006) and two "status quo" elections where the partisan divide remained essentially unchanged (1998 and 2002).
I examined three of these elections in order to look at the connection between electoral climate and the important of financial parity in successful electoral challenges. The one election I excluded, for what it's worth, was 2002. The logic behind that was actually simple: it was the first election after the decennial redistricting, and thus party switches could not have been solely creditted to the strengths and weaknesses of the individual campaigns, nor could it be blamed solely on climate.
The findings here were pretty evident: the more stable the climate, the more important financial parity was in successfully challenging an incumbent member of Congress.
In the most recent wave election (2006), where the Democrats rode a 30-seat gain into the House majority, a total of twenty-two Republican incumbents tasted electoral defeat. Only three of those Democratic challengers (Joe Sestak, Paul Hodes and Brad Ellsworth) raised more than the incumbents they cast from office. Indeed, only four of the 22 (18%) Democratic winners raised anything close (defined as 85% of the incumbents take) to their Republican incumbents.
The most recent Republican wave election (1994) showed a somewhat similar pattern. In that election, a total of thirty-four Democratic incumbents were blasted at the ballot box. You might recall, however, that 1994 was an election year where Democrats really didn't see the wave coming until it became too late. As a result, some Democratic incumbents were caught flat-footed, even on the fundraising front. Even then, only eleven of the 34 (32%) GOP victors came even close to their GOP incumbents (though a more robust nine of them actually outraised their rivals).
In both cases, a significant number of challengers managed to attain victory despite raising 65% or less of the total raised by the incumbents they ejected from office. In the 1994 Republican wave, fifteen of the 34 (44%) GOP victors fell into that category. In the 2006 Democratic wave, ten of the 22 (45%) Democratic victors were outraised to that degree.
Contrast those statistics with the one status quo election during that time frame. In 1998, a near-record year for incumbent retention, only six incumbents were defeated (five Republicans and one Democrat). Two of those six incumbents (Bill Redmond and Michael Pappas) were outraised by their challengers, while two others (Vince Snowbarger and Jay Johnson) lost to challengers who were essentially at parity with them financially. The final two (Jon Fox and Rick White) had larger financial leads, but in both cases, their Democratic challengers raised at least 65% of the total of the incumbents. Furthermore, both Democratic challengers also raised over $1 million in their efforts.
Aside from mere ratios, it is worth noting that raw dollar amounts also matter a bit less in a wave election than they do in a standard election. In 1994, a total of twenty-five of the successful GOP challengers raised less cash than the cheapest successful challenge just four years later (that of Wisconsin's Mark Green, who raised $847K in his successful bid). A dozen of them managed to win despite raising a half-million dollars or less. Even in high-dollar 2006, a trio of Democratic challengers were successful while spending less than the $847K that pulled Green across the finish line eight years prior. Carol Shea-Porter's victory in 2006, on a mere $291K, was the least expensive initial win in the House in this decade, not counting the nepotism-laced wins of Kendrick Meek and Dan Lipinski.
If there is a place where money matters, even in wave years, it is in the open seat races. Consider than in 1994, seventeen of the 26 (65%) party switches in open-seat races were won by the higher-spending candidate. All eight of the open seat winners in 2006 were the bigger spenders. In non-wave 1998, ten out of eleven open seat winners (91%) were the higher spending campaign.
That speaks well to the chances of a couple of Democratic open seat candidates (Roy Herron and Ann McLane Kuster immediately come to mind) who have run top-flight campaigns to date.
What this study of past wave elections makes clear, however, is that for the Democrats to prevent electoral disaster, the accoutrements of the House majority and superior fundraising prowess will not get it done on their own.
Raising voter energy among their most devoted voters (who appear fairly dormant, according to most polling), and changing the electoral climate even by a few degrees, are bigger keys to avoiding a deeply disappointing November.