Democrats have a lot to worry about these days, and now they have one more thing: In races for open seats—42 in the House, 14 in the Senate—Republicans are gaining momentum in fund-raising. "Open seats are much easier to win than knocking off incumbents," says John Fortier, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. A financial advantage makes it even easier.
Republicans competing for seven closely contested open Senate seats raised millions of dollars more as a group than their Democratic rivals in the second quarter. On the House side, Republican candidates in 10 hard-fought races for open seats had more money in their campaign war chests than their Democratic opponents as of June 30.
Republican fund-raising success adds credibility to opinion polls that suggest the party is poised to pick up seats in both houses in November. "The competitive races are the red flag for Democrats," says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. The House fund-raising figures, he says, "suggest that Republicans will be able to make significant dents" in the Democratic majority. Linda L. Fowler, a Dartmouth College government professor, says the second-quarter Senate results "suggest a classic cycle of donors deciding this is a good year for Republicans, giving them money and reinforcing the existing advantage of national tides."
One sign of trouble for Democrats is in Florida, where Marco Rubio, the Republican candidate for Senate, brought in more than $4.5 million from Apr. 1 through June 30, his campaign filing says. Democratic opponent Kendrick Meek raised more than $1 million, according to his website. Governor Charlie Crist, the independent candidate, drew $1.8 million. Republicans running for open Senate seats in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Pennsylvania also out-raised rivals. A backlash against Democrats, who have controlled Congress and the White House during the two years of financial crisis and fierce legislative combat, appears to be boosting Republicans in the money race. Republicans would need to gain 10 Senate seats and 40 House seats to win control of each chamber.
Another source of worry for Democrats is Nevada. Former Republican state legislator Sharron Angle has brought in almost $2.6 million in her bid to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The incumbent collected $2.4 million, although he has almost $9 million in the bank.
Other Democratic incumbents fared better last quarter. Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln, California Senator Barbara Boxer, and Colorado Senator Michael Bennet brought in more campaign cash than Republican challengers. Boxer raised $4.6 million, compared with $3.3 million for her Republican rival, former Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) Chief Executive Carly Fiorina, whose total includes $1.9 million she loaned her campaign.
Princeton's Zelizer says he expects Democrats to retain their majority in the House, where the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents still have more money to spend overall than their Republican challengers. Still, it's likely to be a tough summer and fall for President Barack Obama and his party, says Rogan Kersh, associate dean at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service. "There's greater political energy on the Republican side right now, which spills over into donation patterns."
The bottom line: Democrats' mounting political challenges include growing Republican momentum in the vital race for campaign cash.