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Campaign watch: Following fierce Congressional district fundraising

linda mcmahon

Linda McMahon

So much of the attention in campaign finance circles has been on the enormous sums being raised by the two Presidential candidates – a big-dollar arms race that is shattering all fundraising records, and leaving donors tapped out and exhausted as Election Day draws closer.

Yet that’s not the only financial battleground in campaign 2012. With control of both the Senate and the House up for grabs, equally fierce fundraising efforts are taking place in key Congressional districts. Back in 2008, it cost an average of $1 million to win a seat in the House and $6.5 million to gain a Senate seat.  Today, double-digit millions are pretty much the norm in hotly contested races, even in Congressional districts. This rush of money provides fresh angles – and a raft of colorful stories – for reporters to explore.

A sharp escalation in cost took place in 2010, when control of the House switched to the Republicans and Democrats were barely able to retain control of the Senate. In those mid-term elections, a total of $1.27 billion was raised by all Congressional candidates. That year also saw the first effects of the Citizens United decision, which was handed down by the Supreme Court in January 2010 and opened the doors to new sources of campaign cash. In short order, a variety of independent expenditure groups sprung up, providing new channels of fundraising, outside of the candidates and the parties.

Of course, those numbers will easily be overtaken this year. So far, Congressional incumbents alone have raised more than $546 million, with Republican office-holders raising $337 million to the Democrat’s $209 million. It is not surprising that incumbents are rolling in the dough. Not only are they skilled in the art of fundraising, but year after year, more than 90 percent of incumbents are re-elected.

With odds like that, for donors whose primary motivation is in gaining access to members of Congress, investing in a candidate is a wise strategy. It’s a well-known Washington formula: Incumbency leads to cash and the combination leads to victory.

This year, the heat created by political polarization has created a number of fascinating Congressional races, rich material for stories. There are probably as many good stories as there are fascinating races. One interesting personality is Linda McMahon, a Republican who is making her second attempt to win a Senate seat in Connecticut. Along with her husband Vince, McMahon is an executive at the WWF, World Wrestling Federation Entertainment, and is pouring her millions to get a ticket to Washington.

capitol

U.S. Capitol by Flickr user cliff1066

In 2008, she spent $50 million of her own money in an effort to capture a seat and failed.  Now, she’s going after the state’s other Senate seat. But the wise businesswoman that she is, this time, she’s cut back her investment. So far, she’s spent $13 million of her own money on her race – a lot of money by anyone’s standards, except, perhaps, for McMahon.

Another fascinating race is the Massachusetts match-up between Republican incumbent Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren. It’s a race both rich in politics as it is in cash. Right now, with $53 million raised by the two candidates, it is the most expensive race in the nation. In the money race, Warren is currently ahead, with $28 million raised to Brown’s $19 million.

For two of the smallest states, those are huge numbers. It means that voters will be blanketed with television ads, campaign literature, and phone calls in the final months of the race. Perhaps history will be re-written and Warren will unseat an incumbent and McMahon will find that her investment pays off. Those are just two of the many fundraising stories on the Congressional level. Just take a look, you’ll find scores of others.

About the Author

Leslie Wayne is an adjunct journalism professor at Columbia University and New York University. She's a former award-winning business reporter at The New York Times where she covered Wall Street, politics, banking industry regulatory reform, municipal finance scandals and the aerospace and military industries. Wayne was selected as the inaugural Donald W. Reynolds visiting professor in Business Journalism at Arizona State University in 2010.

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