House Democrats’ Not-So-Secret Weapon for 2014: Cash

Nathan L. Gonzales December 5, 2013 · 10:41 AM EDT

House Democrats are stockpiling cash, and some GOP strategists have expressed concern that Democrats could use their financial advantage to expand the playing field.

Through October, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised $65 million and had $25 million in the bank for the 2014 cycle. The National Republican Congressional Committee raised $52 million during that same period and had $18 million in the bank. If Democrats continue to outpace Republicans in fundraising, that $7 million cash discrepancy could grow between now and next November.

So how could that impact the midterm elections?

Democratic insiders believe they will be in a great financial position no matter what political environment they are handed.

The DCCC could use a $10 million to $20 million cash advantage in at least a couple different ways. The party could spend $1 million or so, unmatched, in a dozen or so districts with inexpensive media markets, such as Ohio’s 6th District or Nebraska’s 2nd District. Or the party could significantly outspend the GOP in a few very competitive and expensive districts, such as New York’s 19th District, which overlaps with the New York City media market.

When total spending between the parties is separated by thousands of dollars, it probably isn’t the deciding factor in a competitive race. But if one side is spending millions more, that’s another story. For example, Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s financial edge over Republican Ken Cuccinelli might have been one of the most understated lessons of the 2013 gubernatorial race in Virginia.

Democrats could also spend early in the known universe of competitive races, to either strengthen their own candidates’ standing or soften up GOP incumbents and challengers before Republicans have the resources to respond.

So how are the Democrats raising so much more money?

According to NRCC sources, the committee is meeting all of its internal fundraising goals and exceeding previous records (more money raised and on hand than at the same point in the past two cycles), but that hasn’t been enough to keep pace.

Even though Democrats are in the minority, they have one huge fundraising asset: President Barack Obama. While his mediocre job approval numbers could be a very big challenge for House Democrats later next year, he is helping bolster the DCCC’s coffers with fundraisers in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

“We don’t have anything to combat that,” according to one GOP source. But the fundraising shortfall isn’t entirely out of the NRCC’s control.

Democrats have spent multiple cycles investing in their online infrastructure and cultivating their list of small dollar donors. It’s a different story on the Republican side. “We’re playing catch-up,” according to one House GOP strategist.

While party fundraising figures make for an easy monthly story, the numbers don’t tell the whole tale.

Of course, one major problem with focusing on DCCC and NRCC fundraising and spending is that outside groups are playing an even greater role in competitive races than ever before. According to the latest Elizabeth Wilner piece ($) for the Cook Political Report, outside groups are on track to account for a majority of all TV ad spending this cycle.

But while outside GOP groups such as American Action Network could spend heavily in House races, there is no guarantee that outside Democratic groups, such as House Majority PAC, won’t spend even more. In fact, the Democratic advantage could grow with spending from outside groups.

In the past, the NRCC has received a multi-million dollar transfer from the Republican National Committee in midterm election cycles. But while the RNC is doing far better than the Democratic National Committee in fundraising this cycle, there is no guarantee the group will give directly to the NRCC next year.

One of the biggest questions is whether having and spending more money even matters.

For example, the NRCC outspent the DCCC by more than $11 million in independent expenditure spending in 2004 and Republicans gained fewer than a handful of seats. Two years later, the NRCC outspent the DCCC by almost $19 million and Democrats gained 31 seats.

According to Vital Statistics on Congress (Table 3-12), the DCCC outspent the NRCC by more than $50 million in IE expenditures in 2008 and gained another 21 seats. But in 2010, the DCCC’s IE unit outspent the NRCC by $17 million and Democrats lost 63 seats. Last cycle, the DCCC had a narrower $805,000 IE spending advantage and the party gained eight seats.

The truth is that sometimes there are political problems that money can’t fix. And that’s the harsh reality for Democrats who head into 2014 with an unpopular president in the White House.

“Money is not going to overcome a political environment that is against you,” admitted one Democratic strategist. But at least Democrats could have more money to try and reshape the political debate and races in their favor.