Congressional challengers struggle as parties focus attention on promising races.
Washington – In an era of seven-figure congressional campaigns, Sharon Sund is struggling.
The former Hennepin County DFL Party chairwoman is facing off against U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, a well-funded Republican with a nearly 70-1 cash advantage.
As Democrats and Republicans pour resources into shoring up imperiled incumbents and aiding only the most promising challengers, long shots such as Sund are being forced to fend for themselves.
The shrinking map of competitive districts means that even though Paulsen has won three times in a district that twice supported President Obama, the Third Congressional District isn’t even a blip on the radar for either party.
On paper, Sund looks like a Democratic ideal: scientist, businesswoman, community organizer and mother of a child with disabilities, which led her to create a mentoring program. DFL state party chairman Ken Martin said of Sund, “She’s a very good candidate. But you need resources to get your message out there, and she’s behind the eight-ball right now.”
At the end of the first fundraising quarter this year, Sund’s campaign had raised $29,000. Paulsen had banked nearly $1.98 million — more than any other Minnesota U.S. House candidate.
Sund said she knows she is the underdog, but “I had the courage to jump into this race, and I believe the resources are going to come.”
But they may not come from her party. The campaign arms of House Democrats and Republicans have reserved about $75 million worth of TV advertising time across the country for fall campaigns. In 2012, a presidential election year, those committees reserved airtime across nearly 60 districts. This year that number has dropped to 40.
And so far, none of it is bound for Paulsen’s district or the Second Congressional District, where voters backed Obama and GOP Rep. John Kline, now seeking a seventh term against DFL challenger Mike Obermueller.
Instead, the $5.8 million in ad reservations in the Twin Cities area television market is aimed at voters in the Seventh and Eighth congressional districts, where longtime Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson is fending off a challenge from Republican Torrey Westrom, while Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan is coming up against an aggressive bid by Republican Stewart Mills.
As Election Day nears, state Democrats may air broadcast advertisements critiquing Paulsen’s voting record, but even those probably would be limited, said Martin, the state DFL chairman.
“There’s a real tendency, on both sides, to try to hold what they have,” said Cheryl Poling, DFL chairwoman for Minnesota’s Third District. “There is only so much money to spend.”
‘Not rolling over’
The congressional race in the western Twin Cities suburbs is shaping up much as it did in 2012, when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) opted not to promote Paulsen’s 2012 challenger, Brian Barnes, as a viable opponent.
Third District GOP chairman Charles Roulet said Republican leaders aren’t worried about Paulsen’s seat. Paulsen campaign spokesman John-Paul Yates said that the campaign won’t crank up until after Labor Day but that Paulsen “takes nothing for granted.”
With Democrats focused on limiting losses, the spigot of support is running dry in many districts.
At this juncture in the 2012 election cycle, Kline’s challenger, former state Rep. Obermueller, had reached the top tier of the DCCC program for top-notch candidates, less than three months after announcing his candidacy. He ended up losing to Kline by 8 percentage points after the campaign committee reserved nearly $800,000 in airtime for the campaign’s final month.
With party leaders less inclined to go all-in for challengers, Obermueller has not generated the same enthusiasm this election cycle. He’s on the bottom rung of that same candidate program, while Kline has jumped out to a nearly 7-1 fundraising advantage.