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Dems hurting, but lead in cash for midterm elections
WASHINGTON — Amid sinking poll numbers and a spate of retirements by veteran lawmakers, Democrats have one early advantage heading into November's congressional elections: money.

Democratic incumbents in the nation's most competitive races hold a substantial financial edge over their Republican challengers, a USA TODAY analysis of recent campaign reports shows.

The 12 freshman Democrats in House races rated as tossups by the non-partisan Cook Political Report raised more than $14 million last year, compared with $8 million by their GOP rivals. Nine of the freshmen collected more than $1 million each last year. None of their GOP rivals did.

The difference was more stark in the Senate. Four senators locked in the most competitive races as rated by Cook— Democrats Harry Reid of Nevada, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Michael Bennet of Colorado— started this year with a combined $25.9 million. That's more than three times the $7.3 million in available cash for their GOP opponents.

Bennet raised $4.8 million in 2009 and was slated to collect more Thursday at two fundraisers featuring President Obama. He and Specter face primaries.

Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who oversees House Democratic races, said the "robust" fundraising by freshmen in close races "is the result of ... understanding that they need to be fully prepared to respond to Republican attacks."

Republicans said they will have the money to compete aggressively in November. "Any advantages these Democrats may have in fundraising is far outweighed by the unpopular agenda they carry with them," said Paul Lindsay of the House Republican fundraising committee.

One reason Democrats enjoy an advantage: Incumbents can tap powerful interest groups for contributions. The four most vulnerable senators, for instance, have more than 10 times the donations from political action committees than their GOP rivals, according to CQ MoneyLine, which tracks money in politics. Reid, the Senate majority leader, had the most PAC money, $2.2 million.

"Incumbency is always the most predominant factor about who gets PAC money," said Meredith McGehee of the non-profit Campaign Legal Center.

Reid spokesman Jon Summers said PAC donations don't influence the senator. Reid, he said, "is focused on the needs of Nevada and the needs of the nation."

Overall, the Democrat Party committees started the year with double the campaign cash of GOP committees, $38 million to $19 million. Reports for January fundraising are due Saturday.

Fundraising success does not always translate into victory on Election Day. In the House, 10 of the 19 incumbents who lost general-election races in 2008 outraised their opponents. So did all five Senate incumbents ousted by voters that year in the general election.

With so many Republicans competing to oust Democrats, "a lot of Republican donors may be waiting for some of these races to shake out a little bit" before contributing, said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for The Cook Political Report.

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