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January 20, 2014 7:41 pm

Democrats in US Congress scored on fundraising

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Every few months, Democratic members of Congress receive a report from the party’s campaign committee, listing how much money they have raised, and how much more they need to pull in to meet their targets.

But recently these lengthy documents have contained a column a number of members said they had not noticed before: a table rating their fundraising on a points system.

“It is just another way to squeeze us,” said one Democratic congressman who asked not to be named.

The system is elaborate, calibrating points according to whom you raise money for, how much, and where you do it, and reflects a hard truth about American politics: the cost of campaigns is continuing to rocket.

“Members of Congress would not find it unusual to spend two, three, four hours out of a day” making fundraising calls, said George Miller, a California Democrat who announced last week he was retiring from Congress after four decades. “In very difficult districts they might do that a couple of times a week while in Washington.”

The need to raise ever larger amounts of money applies to both parties in a campaign environment reshaped over the past decade by court decisions which have unleashed rich, new sources of money for outside campaign groups.

The cost of the average winning campaign for a seat in the House of Representatives jumped from about $640,000 in 1998 to $1.6m in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In the Senate, the rise has been steeper, increasing from $4.8m per winning campaign in 2002 to just under $12m in 2012.

Barack Obama’s formidable campaign resources and get-out-the-vote machine lifted the Democrats in Congress in the 2012 elections, but he will not be a huge help in 2014 midterms in November.

The Democratic majority in the Senate is under threat and the party faces a difficult challenge keeping seats in the House of Representatives, already controlled by the Republicans.

Midterm congressional elections are traditionally difficult for parties that control the White House, especially in any president’s second term. On top of the wear-and-tear factor, dragging down Mr Obama’s standing is his unpopular health law, which is hurting Democrats.

Mr Obama had the resources to defend himself against the new giants of the campaign landscape, the super political action committees, which have no caps on the money they can raise from individual donors.

Members of Congress, by contrast, can solicit a maximum of $2,600 from each individual donor for each election they face, potentially putting them at the mercy of hostile super-Pacs.

Mr Miller said when he was first elected 40 years ago, “most of your fundraising was done in your districts from your constituents – the people you were hoping to represent”.

“Today, I would say that in most districts you can’t even begin to raise enough money when you are going to go up against a super-Pac or a combination of them – they can swamp whatever interests the people in that district have.”

A former Democratic Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle, speaking in Washington last week, said a typical senator spent “two-thirds of the last two years of their [six-year] term raising money”.

“A senator has to raise $10,000 every day that they’re in office – every day of their six years – to make the average amount that’s spent today in a Senate race,” he said.

The threat from outside money has put more pressure on party leaders to raise money and, in turn, forced them to ride their members harder to bring in funds. In the case of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, they have resorted to the points system, so each member’s performance can be benchmarked.

“They are broadening act­ivities which they are going to count, which means you have to do more,” said Michael Toner, a former Republican-appointed chairman of the Federal Election Commission. “It is not so much your legislative knowledge or committee meetings atten­ded that determines promotions, it’s this [money].”

Members of key committees, such as the ways and means committee in the House, which writes the tax laws, are given higher fundraising targets, because of the valuable interests they oversee.

A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman said the party could not hold Republicans to account “without the time and financial commitment” of members. The points system, he said, recognised their contribution and overall effort.

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