WASHINGTON – The recession shadowing the United States and draining Americans' savings has hardly dented Senate candidates' efforts to raise cash for the 2010 elections, and Democrats appear ahead early in the game.
Several Democratic candidates raised more than $1 million during the first three months of 2009, while available data shows only two Republicans crossing that threshold: Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who faces a potentially tough re-election, and Ohio Senate hopeful Rob Portman.
Although the 2010 election is 17 months away, the races are moving into high gear to suck up money as quickly as possible for a battle both sides expect to be a referendum on President Barack Obama's expansive agenda.
"Do I see Republicans raising less than Democrats, sure, because they're in the minority," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "It's a combination of being in the minority and the economy."
Direct comparisons with previous election cycles are difficult due to changed fundraising rules. But the high cost of campaigns shows no sign of ebbing and, since Democrats control the White House and both chambers in Congress, more money is flowing their direction.
"Being the majority party has its perks and having an easier time raising money is one of them," Duffy said.
Republicans have 19 seats to defend in 2010, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, all of which voted for Obama in 2008. Democrats have 17 to defend, including that of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a key Republican target.
Reid raised $2.2 million during the first quarter and has a $5 million-plus war chest, making him a formidable opponent. Obama is going to help him raise money next month at an event in Las Vegas.
"Anyone considering running against Senator Reid should know that we will be armed and ready to run an aggressive campaign," said Brandon Hall, his campaign manager.
Democrats, who control 58 seats in the Senate now, are eager to expand their majority to 60, which would prevent Republicans from using procedural hurdles to slow or stop Obama's agenda.
Ohio, Arkansas in Play
Another Democrat considered potentially vulnerable is Sen. Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas, a state that backed Republican presidential hopeful John McCain in 2008.
She raised $1.7 million, including the $1 million that Vice President Joe Biden helped her raise, and has $2.3 million in the bank. A Republican challenger has yet to emerge, but several are weighing a bid, including former U.S. attorney Tim Griffin.
In the contest for Ohio's open Senate seat, Portman had a promising start, raising $1.7 million. But he probably will face questions about pushing free trade pacts as President George W. Bush's trade negotiator as well as questions about huge deficits when he was Bush's budget director.
"This will come up again and again and again," Duffy said. "I think Ohio is a really competitive race."
On the Democratic side in Ohio, a battle is brewing between Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, who raised $1 million, and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, who raised about $200,000.
In Florida, a battleground state after Republican Sen. Mel Martinez decided to retire, Republicans are anxiously awaiting to see if popular Gov.Charlie Crist will be their candidate.
Rep. Kendrick Meek leads the Democratic field in Florida with the $1.5 million he raised in the first quarter. Former President Bill Clinton helped him with two events.
But the Pennsylvania race could be a tough one for Democrats to wrestle from Republicans. Specter, who is expected to face a tough primary challenge within his party, raised almost $1.28 million and had $6.7 million in the bank.
Democrats will also have to defend seats in Illinois, Delaware, New York, and Colorado, which were vacated by Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Clinton's appointed successor in New York, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, has raised $2.3 million to defend her seat. But she could face a challenge from other Democrats in the state as well as from a Republican opponent later.
Looking less fortunate is Roland Burris, appointed to fill Obama's Illinois Senate seat and who has been dogged by questions about potential links to ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Burris has not said whether he's running, but he reportedly raised less than $1,000 in the quarter.
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