The Question Nobody’s Asking


Today’s the monthly reporting deadline for political party committees at the Federal Election Commission – the second-to-last report we’ll get before election day. In anticipation, there’ve been a flurry of news stories this week focusing on the flow of money as a way of analyzing the horse race.

Wednesday’s story by Jim VandeHei in the Washington Post – “Funding Constrains Democrats” – was particularly illuminating, as it revealed both a hunger for more money and a split among Democrats in how to husband the resources they’ve got. As VandeHei explained it:

Some Democratic officials and donors want their money concentrated to maximize the chances that the party captures the minimum number of seats necessary to gain majorities in the House and the Senate, rather than having resources spread too thin by spending on second-tier targets.

Under either scenario – but especially the second one – the Democrats will need more money than they’ve been able to lay their hands on from the old reliable sources. That’s causing people like James Carville to start growling at the party’s biggest donors to give until it hurts. The notion is seconded by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who’s quoted in the story as saying: “You would be crazy not to get your donors to do whatever they can and borrow what you need.”

In fact, as the story points out, the Democratic National Committee has already taken out $10 million in loans for last-minute ads, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is likely go even deeper into debt before the campaign is finished.

All of which begs the question that nobody’s talking about right now: who’s gonna fill that big red deficit bucket when the election is over?

Of course, if the strangely smug Karl Rove turns out to be right and the Republicans somehow hold on to both the House and Senate, no one will fill the bucket. And the Dems will have hit bottom financially as well as politically.

But that seems an unlikely outcome today. If the Democrats do take control of Capitol Hill, one way or another, it’s not George Soros and a handful of liberal billionaires who’ll bail the party out – after all, those seven-digit soft money contributions are no longer legal.

No, if we’re to judge by what’s happened in the past, the Democrats’ deficit bucket will be filled not by ideological donors at all, but by the pragmatic wing of the business community. If history repeats itself as it did in 1994, when the Republicans unexpectedly took control of Congress, that money won’t flow until the election results are in. But flow it will – a premise that party leaders are counting on as they spend beyond their means in these final frantic weeks of the campaign.

For the past 12 years, Democrats on Capitol Hill have had to settle for relative scraps from business PACs and corporate executives. When they lost the majority in 1994, they could no longer make the argument they’d made before – that business groups, whatever their philosophy, had to deal with Democrats because they controlled Congress.

If they take back Capitol Hill, that old argument will suddenly be salient again. It’s a natural corollary to the most basic law of money and politics: money follows power.

In post-election Washington, “debt retirement” fundraisers will be the first order of business, especially for what looks to be a larger-than-normal class of Democratic freshmen. It will be interesting indeed to see who shows up, checks in hand, welcoming the new crew to town.