The Dems: It's Time for Triage

With funds tight, weak candidates won't get a helping handout

When Robert G. Torricelli pulled out of the New Jersey Senate race on Sept. 30, Democrats breathed a sigh of relief for more than one reason. Torricelli not only gave his party a chance to keep his seat, he also allowed it to save some $10 million Democrats might have spent trying to save his hide. Now they can spend more on other candidates fighting for their careers--and the party's one-seat hold on the Senate.

As they sprint toward Nov. 5, both parties are breaking fund-raising records with a combined $487.7 million tallied so far. Already, that's topping the mind-boggling $450 million raised for House and Senate races in the 2000 Presidential election cycle. Yet in the final stretch, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has only $13.2 million in the bank, compared to the $21.5 million its Republican counterpart holds. And over the last month of the campaign, Republicans were expected to raise even more and spend some $50 million in TV advertising alone. That will far outstrip whatever the Democrats may ultimately raise. With a dozen Senate seats still in play, Dems are finding that their biggest-ever cash haul isn't big enough.

They can't count on help from the Democratic National Committee, which is also running short. As of Sept. 30, the committee had only $4.8 million in cash--and debts of $4.1 million. To raise some fast cash, the party has refunded $6 million in funds earmarked for a new DNC building and asked the donors to reissue checks for use in races. The Republican National Committee, by contrast, has $30.7 million in cash and no debt.

With so many contests still neck-and-neck, Democrats must perform serious triage. Some candidates will get the handout they need for an eleventh-hour ad campaign, but others won't. "We will not bring some of our potentially winnable [races] to the finish line," says Senator Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.).

Democrats have turned off the spigot for such once-promising candidates as Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, who has all but lost his race against incumbent Gordon H. Smith. And Dems won't go whole hog in Texas, where ex-Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk was considered a long shot. But now Kirk is running a surprisingly strong race against Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, and the party can offer only limited help. By Oct. 28, the DSCC will have spent only $4.5 million there. That's just a fraction of what the Republicans will spend in Texas, where an ad campaign costs $1.9 million a week.

In another key race, Dems will support embattled incumbent Paul D. Wellstone of Minnesota, but they won't match the GOP's largesse. Why? Because doting on one candidate would mean scrimping elsewhere, such as in Missouri, where first-term Senator Jean Carnahan faces a tough challenge from former Representative Jim Talent. Or it would mean shortchanging Governor Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who has shot up in the polls against GOP Representative John E. Sununu. "They simply can't afford to lose one seat while focusing on another," says pollster John Zogby.

Party officials, noting that too much advertising can be a turnoff, say they aren't worried. "At some point, you can't buy any more TV," says DSCC spokeswoman Tovah Ravitz-Meehan. Democrats also can count on the Sierra Club, unions, and other groups to offset the party's spending gap by buying their own ads and getting voters to the polls.

Still, demand for Democratic dollars far exceeds supply, and the flusher GOP is prepped for a last-minute TV blitz. "Republicans have the money to do whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want," says Jennifer E. Duffy, an analyst at the non-partisan Cook Political Report. That's enough green stuff to make any Democrat queasy.

By Lorraine Woellert in Washington

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