The 2010 midterm elections were a dream come true for the Republican Party at the ballot box but a nightmare for its bank accounts.
Its commanding takeover of the House, significant gains in the Senate and gubernatorial victories across the nation drained the coffers. By the time Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele left his post in January 2011, the RNC was $24 million in debt with a paltry $300,000 in the bank.
That was then. Going forward into this year's elections, GOP officials eagerly tout the recent headway they've made in fundraising. Just how well they match up to the Democrats' efforts depends on who's being asked.
While the RNC and the Republican House and Senate fundraising committees collectively trail their Democratic counterparts in money raised thus far in the 2012 election cycle, the RNC has erased more than half of its debt since early 2011. It also enjoyed a more than $5.5 million cash-on-hand advantage over the DNC through February, the most recent numbers available from the Federal Election Commission show.
The RNC, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee collectively have $7.2 million more in the bank compared with their Democratic equivalents.
And the RNC out-raised the Democratic National Committee four out of the past seven months, despite President Obama's re-election campaign making significant donations to the DNC.
"If you look at where we're at now and the fact that we started out in a bigger hole than they did and yet somehow now we are over $5 million in cash on hand, I think that speaks to where we're at as a party and as a committee," said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.
Keith Appell, a Republican strategist and a senior vice president at CRC Public Relations, said party officials are "cautiously optimistic" their fundraising upswing will continue through November.
"To the extent that they've turned it around somewhat and actually made a comeback, that's very impressive, and hopefully it will translate into real help on Election Day," Mr. Appell said.
Democrats, however, say Republicans are reading too much into the numbers. They point to the current fundraising scoreboard, which shows the three Democratic Party committees collectively having raised about $263 million this election cycle — $38 million more than their Republican counterparts, FEC records show.
The DNC alone has pulled in about $27 million more than the RNC for the two-year 2012 election cycle, which runs from January 2011 through the end of this year.
And the DNC's fundraising total so far this cycle is more than double what it was during the same period in the 2008 cycle.
Calls to the DNC for comment weren't returned in time for this story.
"Republican fundraising is about as flat as their brand ID, approval ratings and policies these days," said Jim Manley of the public affairs firm Quinn Gillespie and Associates, and a former spokesman with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
Republican candidates, he said, will have to rely heavily on independent pro-GOP super PACs for cash.
"And none [of the super PACs] will feel any compulsion to run positive ads — they will all be negative."
The RNC's hasn't fully crawled out of its money hole. Its $10.9 million in debt is almost double that of the DNC. And the $110 million the RNC raised this cycle is nearly identical to what it brought in at the same point during the past two cycles.
But GOP officials say the RNC's financial gains are all the more impressive because the party's drawn-out presidential primary season has left it without a nominee to inspire potential donors. When a winner does emerge, the RNC has ready a fully funded $21.6 million "President Trust," a fund that can be spent in coordination with the nominee's campaign.
"When you are the DNC and have the presidency and you are losing to the RNC, which doesn't have a candidate and is in the middle of a primary, that's a problem and quite impressive for us," Ms. Kukowski said.
How that money is spent will be critical to the GOP's electoral success in November.
Many blamed former RNC Chairman Steele for misdirecting party funds during the 2010 election season, accusing him of spending too much on fundraising events and not enough on get-out-the-vote efforts in the final days of the campaign.
Reince Priebus, who took over as chairman for Mr. Steele in January 2011, has been credited with cutting operating expenses while beefing up small and large donor lists.
"The irony coming out of the 2010 elections for Republicans was that they could've won a lot more races if they had an actual ground game, but there was no money for it," Mr. Appell said.
"We all believe it's important to have good ads on the air, but if there is no ground game, the Republicans will not do well, because the Democrats will have ground game, and it will be good."
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