WASHINGTON (AP) — The private rooms at Carmine's, a large Italian restaurant downtown, have been hopping with political donors at lunch this week. It's a month to Election Day, and House and Senate candidates are searching far from home for last-minute campaign cash.
This year, the pool of national donors is favoring Republicans, reversing the advantage Democratic candidates have held for two elections.
The numbers are especially noticeable in open-seat races. In the Senate's 14 contests where there's no incumbent, Republican candidates hold a 2-1 advantage in money raised outside their own states, according to an analysis for The Associated Press by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. In the 42 races for open House seats, Republican out-of-state money nearly matches that of Democrats.
GOP candidates' success in tapping into a universe of distant contributors highlights this year's shift in the political terrain as Republicans seek to capture control of Congress by capitalizing on a weak economic recovery and brewing voter anger over some of President Barack Obama's policies.
This GOP financial edge is in the limited contributions candidates are permitted to raise — no more than $2,400 per election from each individual and $5,000 from political action committees. The out-of-state money comes both from Internet appeals and from traditional Republican and conservative donors in Washington and in such states as Virginia, Texas and Florida.
"It's always a good idea to raise the preponderance of your money instate," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the chairman of the Senate fundraising arm of the Republican Party. "But I think people understand that while these are state-by-state races, the impact is national."
It was only four years ago that Democrats benefited from a similar sentiment, running on overarching themes such as opposition to the war in Iraq and antipathy toward President George W. Bush.
The Republicans' bounty coincides with — but is distinct from — the explosion in GOP-allied groups that are raising large, unlimited funds to help Republican candidates in key battlegrounds.
Because incumbents typically get more out-of-state money than challengers, open seats offer a better gauge of the parties' relative fundraising abilities. And out-of state donors have not been as generous to Democrats in open-seat races this year as they have been in the past. While Republican open-seat candidates' contributions have remained steady at about $2 of every $10 raised, Democrats have dropped from about a third of their money coming from out-of state to less than a quarter.
The picture comes into even sharper relief in Senate contests. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats running for open seats were raising half or more of their money outside their own states, while Republicans were at about a third. This year, Democrats are getting only 35 percent of their money from out of state, compared to 45 percent for Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics analysis.
"It's a reflection of the polls about where the energy is," said Steve Elemendorf, a Democratic lobbyist, strategist and former House staffer. "To the extent there is more energy on the Republican side, there is going to be more money on their side."
Wayne Berman, a Republican lobbyist and fundraiser, said Republican donors are dissatisfied with current politics and are energized to make a change. "The exact opposite is true among Democratic givers," Berman said. "They are equally unhappy with the status quo and feel demoralized, and many of them feel a little bit disenfranchised. So, their giving is down."
Republicans are reaching beyond their states in different ways.
Tea party-backed candidates have used the Internet effectively. Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul has done so in Kentucky, much as his father, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, did during his dark horse presidential run in 2008. Christine O'Donnell in Delaware reported raising more than $2 million from a national online appeal after her surprise Senate primary victory over Rep. Mike Castle.
Roy Blunt, a longtime congressman and former member of the House Republican leadership now running for Senate in Missouri, and Rob Portman, a former congressman and Bush budget director now running for the Senate in Ohio, have raised the largest portion of their out-of-state money in the Washington metropolitan area.
Indeed, even in a year when Republicans are running against Washington and Democrats are running away from it, the capital area remains the biggest single donor region in the country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Based on the latest financial reports available, Democrats retain an overall advantage in cash on hand, though that may have dwindled over the past several weeks. The party, led by the Democratic National Committee, has outraised the Republican Party and is mounting advertising and get-out-the vote campaigns in key battlegrounds.
But Republicans have countered with a vast array of allied groups operating outside the national party that are raising money without the legal limits imposed on the parties and the candidates. Those groups are outspending their Democratic-leaning counterparts by about 6-1.
Democrats have been unable to recreate the well-heeled outside groups that were prominent in the 2004 and 2006 elections. In 2008, Obama as the presidential candidate was eager to keep sole control over his message and discouraged groups from forming on his behalf.
Past political donors like billionaire George Soros have put their money instead into policy causes such as health care and climate change.
"For a variety of reasons, that's where he believes his funding can be most effective," said Soros adviser Michael Vachon. "He's more interested in policy outcomes than he is in electoral politics per se."
Elmendorf said that as the election gets closer, Democratic candidates will find the pool of national contributors opening up to them as well. But, he added, that may not be enough.
"The outside group money is concerning."
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