NRCC Young Guns run the gamut as party eyes possibility of big gains in '10

February 16, 2010

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is casting a wide net with its new Young Guns program for leading candidates.

Many of its participants are moving along nicely. For others, time will tell whether they can raise really big money and put second-tier seats in play.

The committee expanded the program to 64 members last week, with 10 ascending to the final stage of the program, Young Gun, and 20 now at the second stage, contender. The remainder, 34, are at the first stage, on the radar. That third group and its fundraising progress will go a long way toward determining whether Republicans can retake the House this year.

The program seeks to help candidates get their campaigns off the ground and achieve benchmarks on their way to earning the committee’s full support.

Of the 64 members of the program, 25 raised more than $150,000 in the fourth quarter. By contrast, about two-thirds as many Democratic recruits in the 26 districts the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is targeting – 17 – raised that much for the same period.

Fully, 16 Young Guns participants outraised Democratic incumbents in the fourth quarter, while two more bested their open-seat opponents. Republicans need a little more than twice that many takeovers – 40 – to regain the majority.

Quality challengers are generally expected to raise at least $100,000 in a quarter, and the vast majority of members of the Young Guns program did that between October and December. But 15 of the 64 did not do so, with another 22 raising between $100,000 and $150,000.

Republicans generally have many more candidates raising solid but not great money. They are optimistic that they can eventually move those candidates into the upper tiers of the program and put dozens more seats in play.

Two challengers who have been named to the first step of the program raised less than $30,000 in the fourth quarter, while six who have advanced to at least the second step of the program failed to raise $100,000.

At the same time, several GOPers turned in exceptionally strong quarters.

Iraq veteran Allen West raised $677,000 in the fourth quarter for his challenge to Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), while Pennsylvania 7th district open seat candidate Pat Meehan, a former U.S. attorney, raised $580,000. Both are now at the final stage, Young Gun.

With the national GOP struggling to stow away money for the 2010 election, candidate fundraising is at a premium. The NRCC had a strong January, raising $4.5 million, but it began the year with just $2.7 million in the bank, compared to $16.7 million for the DCCC. Also, the Republican National Committee (RNC) has seen its cash on hand fall precipitously in recent months.

The GOP has recruited a swath of self-funders to help supplement its efforts.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is heading up the Young Guns program, said candidate fundraising has been a success story.

“Overall, we’re in a much stronger position than we’ve been in years,” he said. “These candidates have raised six figures and have campaigns up and running with structures in place.”

Fundraising isn’t the only thing when it comes to making gains, and a number of Democratic candidates won in 2006 and 2008 without being fundraising stars.

A perfect example is Rep. Bobby Bright (D-Ala.), who drew concern when he raised just $54,000 in his first quarter as a candidate in 2008.

His opponent this cycle, Montgomery City Councilwoman Martha Roby (R), didn’t raise much more than that in the fourth quarter – her third quarter as a candidate – but she still ascended to the final stage of the Young Guns program.

The NRCC emphasizes that its Young Guns program is different from the DCCC’s Red to Blue program for top candidates, in that Young Guns participants must make it through three stages to be at the top of the committee’s priority list. Red to Blue participants, which have yet to be named, will have already attained such support.

In addition to the 10 candidates at the final stage of Young Guns, two candidates have also been endorsed by the committee: Iraq veteran Adam Kinzinger in Illinois and former Florida state Rep. Dennis Ross. Kinzinger is at the on-the-radar stage and raised $122,000, while Ross is a contender and raised $75,000.

Candidates at the Young Gun stage raised an average of $250,000 for the quarter, while contenders and on-the-radar candidates each averaged about $140,000.

A national GOP source emphasized that the onus to raise funds and prove their viability remains on the candidate even after they enter the program. Indeed, some candidates have been stuck at the first stage of the program for months.

“It’s not until you reach Young Gun that you’re assured support,” the source said.

Democrats point out that, in addition to the subpar quarters from some members of the program, one of the first to actually face voters, Illinois attorney Ethan Hastert, lost his primary Tuesday to a non-Young Guns candidate. That candidate, state Sen. Randy Hultgren, has since been added to the program.

While the jury is still out on many Young Guns, there have been plenty of success stories for the GOP. According to the Cook Political Report, Republicans have challengers with at least $100,000 cash on hand in 72 Democratic-held districts.

But for each of the good quarters by a member of the program, another candidate remains with something to prove.

The lowest quarter of all came from retired Army colonel Lou Huddleston, who raised less than $20,000 for his run against Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.). Dr. Scott DesJarlais, who joined the program after a $97,000 third quarter in the race to face Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), raised less than $28,000 in the fourth.

Manchester, N.H., Mayor Frank Guinta, who is at the second stage of the program, continues to struggle with fundraising and could face a tough primary challenge. His $61,000 performance in the fourth quarter was particularly frustrating for the NRCC.

Ross’s fundraising looked good next to Democrat Lori Edwards’s $35,000, but it still isn’t at the level that national Republicans would like it to be at.

Iraq veteran Vaughn Ward has raised $337,000 in four quarters, which is only slightly more than freshman Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho) raised in his first quarter as a challenger in 2007.

The good news for candidates like Ward, Roby and Ross is that they all got early starts, meaning the money they banked in 2009 could be only a basis for their real fundraising work. And much remains to play out in the battle for money.

The financial task for most GOP challengers is tall.

Overall, the average Young Gun participant had about $250,000 cash on hand at the end of the year, while the Democrats they face – most of them incumbents – had an average of $750,000 in the bank.

Democrats continue to have success with their expanded Frontline program for their most vulnerable members. The list, which has grown from 10 to 42 members since 2006, had an average cash on hand of about $800,000 after the fourth quarter.

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