The Big Questions for the Fourth Quarter

Candidates all over the country are closing the books on their 2009 fundraising efforts, and with most of the players in place, it’s all about who’s raising what. Fourth-quarter reports, which are due by the end of the month, are starting to trickle in.

The subplots are many, and money questions remain for plenty of GOP challengers who hope they are part of a wave election.

Here are some key questions that will be answered by the month’s end:

Can tea party candidates raise money?

There is plenty of enthusiasm about the so-called “tea party” candidates, and they are challenging establishment Republicans in plenty of big-time races. But it’s so far unclear whether they can raise the kind of money they’ll need to make themselves into viable candidates. If a few of these candidates can show the rest how it’s done, it could start to be a real problem for Republicans, rather than a hypothetical one.

Can Trey Grayson and Lee Fisher turn it around?

The two most disappointing third quarters on the Senate map came from Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R) and Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D). Neither raised even $650,000, and both were severely outdone by other candidates. In the fourth quarter, both have a chance to assert that the third quarter was a fluke. Grayson primary opponent Rand Paul, who tracks his fundraising on his website, will not turn in another $1 million quarter, so the door is open to Grayson. Fisher is now more than two quarters removed from his own $1 million effort in early 2009, and he could use another one to silence the critics. He benefits from what turned out to be a pretty innocuous primary challenge from Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, but former Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is raising big general-election bucks.

Does Sue Lowden or Danny Tarkanian (or someone else) emerge?

We get it. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is in trouble. Now the first person to tell us who will beat the $25 Million Man gets a prize. No Republican has hit the $350,000 mark through September, and the race is a jumbled mess. During the fourth quarter, the attention began to shift to former state party Chairwoman Sue Lowden and businessman Danny Tarkanian, but the onus will be on them to back that up with good fundraising. A million-dollar quarter would be ideal, but a significantly smaller sum would likely still make them into bona fide front-runners. If they don’t assert themselves early, other candidates (John Chachas, Sharron Angle, Mark Amodei) will creep into the media narrative more and more.
Can Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) scare away Beau Biden?

Here we are, a whole quarter later, and Beau Biden still isn’t a Senate candidate. The question is: Is he scared? Castle’s $57,000 third quarter (all raised as a House candidate) didn’t scare anybody. But the former governor has a second chance with his fourth-quarter report. If he turns in a really big number, it will put Biden on the spot. The current state attorney general probably won’t have trouble raising money either way — we hear his dad knows some people — but running against a well-funded Castle is a lot less attractive than running against a meagerly funded Castle.

Can David Hoffman and Patrick Hughes fund a last-minute push?

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) both have vulnerabilities in the Illinois Senate primary, which is less than three weeks away. But if Patrick Hughes (R) and/or David Hoffman (D) are really going to make a race of it, they need money. Neither raised even $400,000 in the third quarter, and Hoffman set an ambitious goal of $2 million in the fourth quarter. Both can self-fund to some extent, but Illinois is expensive. Keep an eye on Hoffman; Giannoulias’s numbers are worse than Kirk’s, and Kirk seems pretty confident right now.

Also worth watching on Feb. 2, the nation’s first primary, is the race for Kirk’s House seat, where state Rep. Beth Coulson (R) and repeat nominee Dan Seals (D) are fighting off better-funded challengers. In Rep. Bill Foster’s (D-Ill.) district, state Sen. Randy Hultgren’s (R) number in his primary against Ethan Hastert will be watched closely.

Do fourth-quarter numbers point to any retirements?

As a retirement indicator, fundraising numbers are overrated. But they can provide some subtle hints, especially in certain cases. Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), for instance, had better get his financial house in order if he is going to be taken seriously. And Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) was forced to answer retirement questions after his office asked the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) how it could use campaign funds when he’s out of office. Fundraising in these cases may be more of a factor in a potential retirement, rather than a symptom. Others to watch are Reps. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), Mike Ross (D-Ark.) and Marion Berry (D-Ark.). Another Arkansan, Rep. Vic Snyder (D), doesn’t raise money in the off-year, so he’ll fall even further behind former U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin (R).

How do new GOP recruits pan out?

Sam Caligiuri, Jackie Walorski, Jim Gibbons, Mike Grimm, John Loughlin, Dan Debicella, Joe Heck, Scott Bruun, Mick Mulvaney, Robert Hurt: These are names national Republicans would like you to know after this month. It’s one thing to talk up a new recruit to the media; it’s another for him or her to pan out. The fourth quarter was a big time for Republican recruitment, and it will be the first quarter of fundraising in many districts the party hopes to put in play this year. The GOP recruiting surge will endure its first major test on this count.

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