The 2006 elections are shaping up to be the most troublesome kind for political practitioners: unpredictable. What makes me say that this early in the season is a new report from the Campaign Finance Institute, a non-profit research group in Washington that takes a rigorous academic look at the latest trends in political financing.
They’ve been looking at the latest FEC reports on spending in congressional races and found that in competitive districts – those relatively few spots on the map where the seat may be winnable by either party – challengers are raising ample sums to take on the incumbents, as are candidates from both parties in close districts with open seats.
In short, in those congressional districts where the outcome is in doubt, money will not be a factor. Well, let me qualify that. A disparity in money between the two candidates won’t be a factor. Challengers may not be matching incumbents dollar for dollar, but they’ll have enough to adequately compete. Here’s how the CFI report put it:
“While most incumbents have a huge fundraising advantage,” commented CFI Executive Director Michael J. Malbin, “enough Democratic challengers and open seat candidates have the money now to make the House majority a real issue in November. For these races, money is no longer the issue, and this is a real change from the last three elections.”
To get a handle on what’s going on this year, it’s useful to recall the bad old days of the Cold War, with its arms race between superpowers and proxy skirmishes fought in places like Vietnam and Angola.
The money is the arms race, and in the districts that matter both sides will have sufficient quantities to obliterate the other. (Good luck if you live in one of those districts. You can expect some collateral damage from all the crossfire and you can definitely count on decibel levels to jump sharply after Labor Day.)
The Vietnams and Angolas will be fought in places like the 4th congressional district of Connecticut or the 6th of Pennsylvania – places where incumbents are getting nervous and the populace is restive.
When these kind of skirmishes crop up around the country, the whole landscape becomes more tense. Pressures keep rising on those incumbents with no serious challengers to step up their fundraising and share it with those who do.
In response, all the usual funding suspects are being hit up relentlessly, both by members of Congress and the party committees. Democratic allies are desperate to feel the adrenaline rush of a victory in what’s been a particularly dismal decade. Republican funders, meantime, are getting nervous that their long winning string may be coming to an end, at least on Capitol Hill.
The business money will be especially interesting to watch between now and the end of the year. Since the Republicans won back control in 1994, business groups have had a bonanza on Capitol Hill. Tax cuts, regulatory breaks, and a raft of pro-business policies on issues from energy to health care have brought dividends to many of them. They’ve got every incentive to keep the GOP in control and they haven’t been shy about kicking in the money it takes to keep the political machine well oiled.
But there’s only so much money you can throw at a race before the law of diminishing returns steps in – especially when the other side is raising ample funds of its own.
No doubt some of the deep pockets in the business community are already starting to reassess their options if it seriously begins to look like the Democrats could tilt the balance of power in Congress. But if 2006 is anything like 1994, don’t count on any serious shift of business money to Democrats until after the votes are counted. PACs and other professional funders don’t operate on wishful thinking, but on hard, cold facts.
So let’s take one step at a time. This week’s CFI report reveals one crucial fact in the upcoming elections: in the must-win districts, money will be no object.
Post-election IOU’s, of course, are a different matter.