Here are two numbers that show the depth of the Democrats' problems this year. The first is $40,248. That's how much Rep. Barney Frank's Republican opponent raised in 2008. The second is $200,000. That's how much Barney Frank just loaned his current campaign for re-election.
Frank's opponent is Sean Bielat, a first-time candidate half Frank's age, and if he doesn't win this race it hardly matters. As of Sept. 30 he had raised $613,419. He's built local and national fan bases. He's pinned Frank down, when in a typical year Frank could do a quick threat assessment, realize just how safe he is in his suburban Massachusetts district, and dole out money to fellow Democrats.
"It's lights out as far as [Frank] helping other candidates," said Lisa Barstow, Bielat's campaign spokesperson. "Democrats have relied on him for largesse to help them in their own races. He hasn't had a serious challenge in 20 years. So this is going to have a significant effect on Republican races." Oh, and on Frank's personal loan: "Nothing could be more delightful!"
Bielat's something of a special case—Frank, who has held the seat since 1981, is closely identified with TARP. The district voted narrowly for Scott Brown in the January special election for U.S. Senate, and Republicans actually see an opportunity for an upset here. In plenty of other "safe" Democratic races, Republicans are fielding candidates that not even the party expects to win. The hope is that they campaign hard enough and get enough support from national groups, to pin the Democrats down.
The possibilities are endless. Republicans have had no problem raising money to target Democrats this year. Would-be fringe candidates have plugged into the Tea Party in order to raise their profiles and haul in cash. Sparkling new PACs and 501(c)(4)s have turned on the fire hoses: The "Western Representation PAC," based in Nevada, is spending about $200,000 against Frank and the even-more-secure Rep. Jim McGovern in the next district over. Last week American Crossroads, the Godzilla-sized GOP-backing group co-founded by Karl Rove, started talking about a "House surge" to fund ads in districts that Democrats weren't in position to defend properly.
In another year, this wouldn't really work. There's a reason why these people are usually safe.
"There are certain election cycles," says American Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio, "where the dynamics are such that an all-out assault beyond the conventional battleground would yield no results whatsoever. Six years ago, voters would tell you they valued experience over a candidate who'd change the direction of the country. And right now where are voters? They are hellbent focused on change."
That gives the big and small donors a reason to throw money at an impossible race. It also helps when people are dazzled by the candidates they've heard on Sean Hannity's daily candidate interviews or on Fox News or at Tea Party events.
And this matters. In 2008, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer donated $1,592,205 of his campaign funds to other Democrats, while Nancy Pelosi donated $1,100,000. This year, Hoyer is facing a first-time candidate armed with solid fundraising and endorsements from FreedomWorks, Mike Huckabee's PAC, and other groups looking for long shots. Charles Lollar, like Bielat, is a Marine veteran, which for Republican donors means what "Rated a Best Buy by Consumer Reports" means for people shopping for cars. He's black in a heavily black district. And so Hoyer has had to spend some time and money in the district instead of bailing out his majority. He's still donating, sure, but it's less than he could in 2008.
In typical years, "safe" Democrats give away a lot of their money, and Democrats (like Republicans) have plenty of safe, wealthy districts that they don't need to tend to. But this year they're running low on these kinds of districts, because of the GOP's counterstrikes and because of scandal. In previous years, Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York might have dipped into his campaign fund, which is as deep as you'd expect from the former chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, to help out his party. In 2006 he gave $787,500 to fellow Democrats, and in 2008 he gave $1,298,900. But this year he's mired in an ethics trial after a series of graft scandals, and taking money from him means an instant negative ad from a Republican. Poof! There goes more than a million dollars that could be helping elect more Democrats.
What good can you do for your party if you don't have to worry about your re-election? Ask a Republican. Specifically, ask Jim DeMint. The senator most adored by the Tea Party did not draw a real Democratic opponent in his South Carolina race. He drew Alvin Greene, the confused and troubled man who became a media star this summer for the same reason that American Idol cast-off William Hung once secured a record deal. And so instead of having to spend money shoring up his race, he's been able to spend $1.5 million on other candidates.
Republicans can't get over their delight—in the Bielat campaign's words—about the Democrats' problem. Some of them do realize, glumly, that the majority party has been brutally effective in triage, and in cutting off doomed candidates to divert money to the competitive races or to bailouts of the "safe seats." In a forum last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked about her own diversion-causing challenger, John Dennis, and whether she'd debate him.
"Let me tell you what my priorities are," said Pelosi, as a Dennis supporter's camera rolled. "My priorities are to elect a Democratic Congress. In order to do that it's essential for me—time is money—to move around this country, amass resources, put candidates on TV. Whether I get a bigger majority in my district is not the point."
Dennis, who's been profiled by the New York Times and amassed more money than any Pelosi opponent ever, acknowledges that Pelosi hasn't yet had to move her cash around to stop him. For now.
"If she spends any time focusing on the district," says Dennis, "that's a little less time than she spends focusing on other candidates who feel the same way she does." Besides, he says, if she loses her majority, she might resign from Congress, and then there'd have to be a special election at a time when Democrats would be glum about turning out. That's the kind of election he could win—if he builds support now. "There's all sorts of benefits to running."