WASHINGTON – In late October, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean took an expensive and calculated risk for his party: He took out a $10 million line of credit.

In the final leg of the midterm election campaign, it was at once a confident bet and a glaring indicator of the party’s financial disadvantage. If Democrats take control of at least one chamber of Congress after Tuesday, the debt will rapidly be repaid. If not, the party would face an unwelcome burden for the 2008 presidential cycle.

In the money chase, the Republican Party retains its customary superiority for the final barrage of advertising and last-minute efforts to turn out voters.

But the political impact of the GOP’s money advantage has been blunted this year by stronger-than-usual Democratic fund raising that has narrowed the funding gap and an electoral climate that is working against congressional Republicans, analysts said.

As of Oct. 18, the Republican National Committee and its House and Senate campaign committees had raised a combined total of $435 million and were headed into the final weeks with a cash balance of $49 million. Democrats had raised $333 million and had a cash balance of $32 million.

The Republican financial advantage is smaller than during other midterm elections since the GOP seized control of Congress in 1994. At this point in 2002, for example, Republicans had raised more than twice as much as Democrats and the GOP cash on hand was more than three times as large as the Democrats.

“What’s noteworthy is how competitive Democrats have been. They’ve been able to provide the money that their candidates in competitive races needed, when they needed it,” said Anthony Corrado, a political science professor who specializes in campaign finance at Colby College in Maine.

Republicans reported $50 million in independent expenditures by the party to support House and Senate candidates in the two weeks ended Wednesday, compared with $38 million reported by Democratic Party committees, according to an analysis released Thursday by the Campaign Finance Institute at George Washington University.

Particularly in the contest for control of the House, Republicans must divide their resources over an unusually large number of competitive races, nearly all of them in districts represented by a Republican. In contrast to recent elections, the field of competitive races has expanded rather than contracted as the election grew nearer, further diluting their financial advantage.

The non-partisan Cook Political Report rates 61 House races as competitive, with 54 of the seats held by a Republican. A net swing of 15 seats would give the Democrats control of the House. Nine Senate seats are generally considered competitive, with seven held by Republicans. Democrats need a net gain of six seats for a majority.

Campaign funds deployed at the end of a political campaign are primarily for last-minute advertising or turnout efforts. But news developments – the situation in Iraq and the congressional page scandal, for example – have complicated a national Republican strategy of using attack ads to undermine the credibility of Democratic challengers even as the developments have reinforced the national themes on which the Democrats have based their campaign strategy.

“There’s a real question whether this final push on spending is going to be able to focus voters back on the local or personal characteristics of candidates and take their focus away from the direction of the nation,” Corrado said.

At the same time, shifts in the battleground for control of the House, as polling has showed Democrats to be competitive in some congressional districts previously thought to be safely Republican, could diminish the still-significant impact of Republican efforts to mobilize. That is less of a factor in the struggle for control of the Senate, in which most of the key races have been clear for a long time.

Organized campaigns to turn out a candidate’s supporters generally are decisive only in extremely close elections – typically, those in which the candidates are within 1 or 2 percentage points of each other. The problem for the Republicans is that, in the case of House races, the battle space has been changing during the close of the campaign. New seats have been coming into play, and many seats in which the margins looked close now no longer are close, while many Republican candidates with larger leads recently have seen them dissipate, said Amy Walter, senior editor of nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Even so, Republicans will benefit from heavy and early investments in get-out-the-vote campaigns for a number of House contests that still look close. Vote turnout efforts may have greater impact in the battle for the Senate, where Republicans only need to hold onto control of two of the seven Republican seats in play.

Most important, money and campaign tactics are easily overwhelmed if an election turns into a lopsided wave of voter sentiment for change. According to Walter, the 34 Democratic incumbent House members who were swept out of office in the 1994 Republican surge that changed control of Congress all had heavy funding advantages over their Republican challengers.


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