There are any number of reasons why Democrats are heading toward an epic defeat in the midterms, from a terrible economy to a resurgent and relentlessly on-message right. But close elections are won by money as much as anything, and many Democrats who have it aren’t helping those who don’t.
Take the plight of the screener, the person many big-money donors employ to field calls from needy politicians and then help decide which candidates to give money to. Being a screener is always thankless work. The guy who signs the checks gets the gratitude; the guy who puts the checkbook away gets the blame. But this year screeners offer a unique window into the shortsightedness—and selfishness—of many Dems. “I’m getting tons of calls—that’s no surprise—but a lot of them are from incumbent congressmen who are from safe districts,” says a screener for a major Democratic donor who works on Wall Street. “I always ask them, ‘What’s your cash on hand?’ They’ll say, ‘I’ve got $2 million, but I’ve got to be careful.’ What the fuck do you need to be careful for? If my boss can only make $50,000 in contributions to candidates this cycle, why should he be writing it to an incumbent with $2 million in the bank? We’re about to lose the House, and they’re trying to suck up money from Democrats who really need it!”
Even worse, many of these safe Democrats are refusing to share the money they already have with their more embattled colleagues. Under federal campaign-finance laws, members of Congress can give unlimited amounts of their own campaign funds to their party’s campaign committee. For instance, Patrick Kennedy, who’s retiring at the end of this year, gave $200,000 from his campaign war chest to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helps Democrats in tight congressional races around the country.
But his was a rare act of generosity in a year when there’s no shortage of tight races for Democrats. According to an internal Democratic Party document, at the end of August, 189 Democratic congressmen had yet to make good on their dues to the DCCC. Among the tightfisted bunch were a host of flush and safe representatives, including Philadelphia-area congressman Robert Brady, whom Nate Silver gives a 100 percent chance of retaining his seat and who has given only $100,000 of $250,000 he was expected to contribute to the DCCC. Meanwhile, some retiring Democrats were being similarly stingy: Washington’s Brian Baird, who’s not running for reelection and has more than $500,000 in leftover campaign funds, hadn’t paid any of his $150,000 in DCCC dues.
All of which has left Democrats in something of a cash crunch. At the end of August, the DCCC was $15 million short of the money it’s expecting to receive from its members, and it’s no sure thing it will have the money to fund its ambitious plans for this fall, which include spending $48 million on independent advertising for various Democratic congressional candidates.
And even those plans probably aren’t ambitious enough. Right now, the 255 Democrats in the House have close to $220 million in their combined campaign coffers. About 75 of them face tough reelection fights—which means that, conservatively speaking, at least $100 million is sitting in the war chests of Democrats who are retiring or will have an easy time of things in November.
“The idea of having all that money just sit in reserve this year is crazy,” complains the screener for the Wall Street heavyweight. “What would happen if those Democrats tithed a third, or even a quarter, of that money to the DCCC? You’re telling me an extra $25 million to $50 million over the last three weeks of the campaign wouldn’t save a few of these guys who, right now, are definitely going to lose?” The screener thinks about the conversations he’ll be having with soliciting politicians in the coming days and weeks. “The question I want to ask these guys is, ‘How badly do you want to keep the House?’ At the end of the day, maybe they just want to be congressmen.”