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Incumbents' Latest Problem: Cash-Flush Challengers

Incumbent members of Congress have all sorts of advantages in campaign season, including name recognition, relationships and experience. But most of all, they usually have more money than the sometimes hopeless challengers they square off against.

AP

That’s one reason why re-election rates for members of Congress are astonishingly high—90 percent or more of sitting congressmen have been reelected in each campaign since 1994, and in some years, 98 percent of incumbents have been re-elected.

But the political pundits are predicting that 2010 could be a different kind of year, a wave election in which voter anger over the sour economy sweeps incumbent Democrats out of office in record numbers.

One indication that insiders are looking at is the money race—and the unusual fact that six challengers actually have more money than the incumbents they’ll be squaring off against in the fall campaign, according to a survey by the Center for Responsive Politics. Five of those challengers are Republicans, and only one is a Democrat, suggesting that the financial momentum is on the GOP side of the campaign.

“These are certainly races to watch,” said David Levinthal, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics. “The fact that you have a lot of Republicans in these few races raising more than Democrats generally could be a bellwether,” he said. “[It] could be a sort of canary in the coalmine that indicates that across the nation there may be something different going on here.”

The small group of challengers is raising eyebrows among veteran political operatives. “Are you kidding me?” said one. “This is totally unusual. Any situation in the country where you’ve got an incumbent who is not ahead in fundraising, that incumbent is in trouble.”

Most of the cash-flush challengers are in Ohio, a key battleground state in presidential election years, and a state that’s been especially hard hit by the recession.

In Ohio’s first district, for example, former congressman Steve Chabot, who lost his bid for reelection in 2008 to the man who now holds the seat, Democratic Rep. Steve Driehaus. Chabot had just over a million dollars in cash on hand for the tight election campaign, while incumbent Driehaus had $972,908, according to the latest figures available on Opensecrets.org.

In the thirteenth district, self-funded Republican challenger Tom Ganley was sitting on a massive war chest of $2,691,051, dwarfing incumbent Democratic Rep. Betty Sue Sutton, who disclosed $593,409 in the latest report available. Ganley, a veteran car salesman, faces a tough race in the 13th, which favored Barack Obama in 2008. But his money is making him more competitive.

In New York’s 19th District, Republican challenger Nan Hayworth had $562,555 in cash on hand, compared to incumbent Rep. John Hall, who had $504,100, according to the latest figures available on opensecrets.org. Hall, a former member of the ‘70s band Orleans, recently scheduled a fundraiser with rocker Jackson Browne to help raise funds for the race, which is expected to be very close.

“Challengers only do well in change elections, and this is going to be a change election,” said Republican strategist John Feehery, a veteran lobbyist and former Capitol Hill aide. “Donors typically give money in order to place a bet that helps them get access to a member of Congress. Usually the money goes to the incumbent, because that’s the safer bet.”

There is only one Democratic challenger who appears to have an edge over a Republican challenger, according to the information available on opensecrets.org—physician Ami Bera, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Dan Lungren in California’s third congressional district. Bera had $1,140,083 in cash on hand to Lungren’s $802,367 in the latest reports. RealClearPolitics.com rates the race as leaning Republican, despite Bera’s fundraising prowess, but the cash clearly makes Bera a formidable challenger.

The two other races in which challengers have more cash than incumbents, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, are Ohio’s 15th Congressional district, where Republican challenger Steve Stivers had $1,242,961 on hand in the latest reports, and Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy had $933,626, and California’s 37th district, where incumbent Democrat Laura Richardson had just $32,525 on hand and Republican challenger Star Parker had $130,805.

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