- The Washington Times - Friday, April 30, 2010

The power of ready cash in politics is proving a mixed bag in a collection of tight races that many expect could decide control of the Senate this fall.

In just four of the eight races that analysts consider critical to control of the Senate in November, the candidate winning the money race is also clearly ahead in the early polls. The candidate with the country’s biggest bankroll - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat - is trailing a slew of Republican challengers seeking his job.

“Incumbents try to build a big war chest as a disincentive for people to challenge, so Mr. Reid can indeed run the Cadillac of campaigns,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the Cook Political Report. “But the real issue is whether challengers can meet the basic threshold of money required to run a competitive race.”

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, had a similar analysis.

“What’s more important is the challengers spending just enough to get out their message,” he said.

Mr. Reid leads all candidates with $11.3 million in campaign funds. However, the four-term incumbent trails in polls with the top Republican challengers - former state Sen. Sue Lowden, who has $2.2 million, and businessman Danny Tarkanian, who has collected $1.1 million to date, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission reports.

With Mr. Reid’s money and clout as Senate majority leader, he should easily win the June 8 primary. But anti-incumbent sentiment - along with Nevada’s troubled tourism industry, high unemployment and record foreclosure rate - have helped put Mr. Reid behind Ms. Lowden by 11 points and Mr. Tarkanian by 9.2 points, in a poll average by Real Clear Politics.

Mr. Sabato was not optimistic about Mr. Reid, who has $9.4 million cash on hand, spending his way to victory in November.

“Money alone will not rescue Mr. Reid,” he said. “But let’s see who the Republicans pick. They’re perfectly capable of making a bad choice. Opponents’ gaffes and an upturn in the economy could always help.”

New Hampshire, where Republican incumbent Sen. Judd Gregg is retiring, is another state in which the candidate with the deepest pockets isn’t topping the polls.

Republican William Binnie, a businessman and political newcomer, has $3.7 million in campaign money and a five-point lead over the likely Democratic candidate, Rep. Paul. W. Hodes, who has raised $3 million. But Mr. Binnie still has to win the Republican nomination, and right now, former state Attorney General Kelly A. Ayotte holds a 24-point lead over him and other candidates in the Sept. 14 party primary, according to the poll average.

Mr. Binnie did not register on a Rasmussen Reports poll taken in late April.

Binnie campaign manager Bryan Lanza said his candidate recently surged in polls and in fundraising by convincing voters that he can create jobs and work under a balanced budget.

“He’s the only candidate with momentum in this race,” Mr. Lanza said.

In Ohio, former Rep. Rob Portman, a Republican, has roughly twice as much campaign money as his likely Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, but it was Mr. Fisher edging ahead in a Quinnipiac University poll released this week by a 40 percent to 37 percent margin.

The Democrat held the slight lead even though Mr. Portman has $10 million compared with $4 million for Mr. Fisher in the race to replace retiring Sen. George V. Voinovich, Republican.

Mr. Portman - who was a budget chief for President George W. Bush - raised $2.35 million in the first quarter and has $7.6 million in cash on hand. The Portman campaign also reported that more than 85 percent of the money came from Ohio residents.

In Colorado, the leading fundraising candidate is ahead of one challenger from the opposite party but trails the other.

Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat appointed when President Obama named Ken Salazar as interior secretary, has $6.2 million in campaign funds but trails former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, a Republican who has raised just one-third of that amount, by 1.4 percentage points.

Mr. Bennet has a similarly slender lead over the other top Republican candidate, Kenneth Buck, who has $756,105 in campaign money.

In Kentucky and Missouri, the candidates with the most money hold leads in the polls, but by slender margins.

In Missouri, Rep. Roy Blunt, a Republican, has $6 million in campaign money, ahead of Democrat Robin Carnahan, who has $5.5 million. He also leads Ms. Carnahan by 2.3 percentage points, according to the poll average. The two are battling for the seat of retiring Sen. Christopher S. Bond, a Republican.

In the Kentucky race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Jim Bunning, Republican candidate Rand Paul leads candidates with $2.43 million in campaign funds. Mr. Paul, an eye surgeon and son of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is ahead of Democratic candidate Daniel Mongiardo by 10 points, according to the poll average.

Mr. Mongiardo, the state’s lieutenant governor, has $1.79 million and trails the other major Republican candidate, Trey Grayson, the Kentucky secretary of state. The primary in May 18.

Mongiardo spokesman Kim Geveden said competitive primaries will be expensive for all of the major candidates in the state and that raising money in Kentucky has been difficult this election cycle.

He cited the weak economy, the thousands of candidates trying to raise money in local elections and the fundraising campaign of Gov. Steven L. Beshear, a Democrat who is tapping donors for his own re-election race in 2011.

“To begin with, Kentucky is not a wealthy state, as you know,” Mr. Geveden said. “Then you have maybe 3,700 local candidates - jailers, aldermen, etc. So, combined with the worst economic conditions in my lifetime, it has been a very difficult year for the candidates.”

Mr. Sabato said candidates lagging in the polls and in fundraising usually can expect outside help.

“That’s where the parties come in,” he said.

In other key Senate contests, the top candidates are closer in both fundraising and poll ratings.

In Pennsylvania, likely Republican candidate Patrick J. Toomey has $7.19 million, compared with five-term incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican turned Democrat who has $7.15 million. Mr. Toomey, a former congressman, leads in an average of recent polls by 6.5 points. The Toomey-Specter race is a replay of 2004, when Mr. Specter was still a Republican.

With the Illinois primary over, Democratic state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias will face Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, a Republican, in the Nov. 2 general election to replace appointed Sen. Roland W. Burris, a Democrat. Mr. Kirk has $6.7 million, compared with $4.8 million for Mr. Giannoulias, but polls show the Republican holding a narrow lead for the seat formerly held by President Obama.

Cook Political Report’s Ms. Duffy said she expects more money will enter the campaigns as November approaches.

“Donors are waiting for the primaries,” she said. “I expect conditions to improve.”

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