WASHINGTON – The Democratic National Committee under Howard Dean is losing the fund-raising race against Republicans by nearly 2 to 1, a slow start that is stirring concern among strategists who worry that a cash shortage could hinder the party’s competitiveness in next year’s midterm elections.
The former Vermont governor and presidential candidate took the chairmanship of the national party eight months ago, riding the enthusiasm of grass-roots activists who relished his firebrand rhetorical style. But he faced widespread misgivings from establishment Democrats, including elected officials and Washington operatives, who questioned whether Dean was the right fit in a job that traditionally has centered on fund raising and the courting of major donors.
Now, the latest financial numbers are prompting new doubts. From January through September, the Republican National Committee raised $81.5 million, with $34 million remaining in the bank. The Democratic National Committee, by contrast, showed $42 million raised and $6.8 million in the bank.
“The degree to which the fund raising has not been competitive is obviously troublesome,” said former congressman Vic Fazio, D-Calif., who is now a lobbyist.
One House Democratic leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, put it more bluntly: “There is plenty of time, but the red flashing sirens should be going off there.”
As Democrats are riding high in the wake of Tuesday’s elections, running unexpectedly strong even in traditional Republican states such as Virginia, the DNC’s fund-raising problems represent a potential cloud. But those results also could boost the spirits of partisans in ways that will make it easier for Dean to even the balance.
As critics see it, Dean has disappointed on two fronts. The DNC has not replicated the success of Dean’s presidential campaign two years ago in tapping vast numbers of new and smaller contributors over the Internet. And skeptics say he has not yet established rapport with and won the confidence of high-dollar donors.
DNC officials acknowledge that elements of their fund-raising operation have started more slowly than expected. But they and other Dean defenders said his record should be viewed in context.
In the previous election cycle, the DNC had raised $31 million, compared with the RNC’s $80 million at this point in 2003. But the cash-on-hand disparity – the main concern of party strategists – was less daunting then, with the RNC sitting on $27 million to nearly $10 million for the DNC.
The explanation most offered by Dean allies for the sluggish start is that donors are tired of giving after watching Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts fail to deliver the White House.
“We will have the resources to do what we need to do,” said Karen Finney, a DNC spokeswoman. “We are committed to investing in state parties and rebuilding the grass-roots from the bottom up.”
Finney noted that the committee has staff in 38 states and will have organizers in every state by the year’s end. She also noted that the DNC donated $5 million to the winning gubernatorial campaign of Virginia Lt. Gov. Timothy Kaine.