Ohio’s 16 incumbent U.S. House members have raised a combined $32 million for their re-election bids — some 15 times what their upstart challengers have this election season.
Despite safe seats and novice challengers, lawmakers are nonetheless padding their campaign coffers with the financial equivalent of a security blanket, raising millions to scare off any future challengers or outside money groups that might be tempted to interfere.
“Sixteen seats open and none of them with a real race,” said Sarah Bryner of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C.-based campaign finance watchdog.
Watchdogs say during an era when Congress is polling at historic lows, tossing incumbents out of office is nonetheless a herculean and nearly impossible task. In Ohio, for example, lawmakers sit in districts that have been overwhelmingly drawn safer for them over the past few decades. Add to that mammoth fundraising advantages, and few challengers stand a chance.
“I’m sure this deters good candidates,” said Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio. “Let’s put it this way — it certainly deters sensible people.”
Of the current congressional challengers in Ohio, only four have more than $100,000 in the bank as of June 30 — Democrats Fred Kundrata, Jennifer Garrison, Michael Wager and Marek Tyszkiewicz, who are challenging Republican Reps. Steve Chabot of Cincinnati, Bill Johnson of Marietta, Dave Joyce of northeast Ohio and Brad Wenstrup, R-Cincinnati, respectively.
But in those races, higher cash on hand also means that candidates have had to go into significant debt; Kundrata, for example, has $176,888 in debt, according to his latest campaign finance report. The Chabot-Kundrata 1st district race is the only one of those four races that is in the Miami Valley. The 1st district includes all of Warren County and part of Hamilton County.
Some challengers, meanwhile, have yet to raise or spend the $5,000 threshold that the Federal Election Commission requires a candidate to raise or spend before filing campaign finance reports. Five major-party opponents in Ohio have yet to file a report. One of those candidates is Robert Klepinger who is running against U.S. Rep. Mike Turner in the 10th district which includes Montgomery and Greene counties and part of Fayette County. While Klepinger did not raise enough money to have to file a campaign finance report, Turner raised nearly $700,000 as of June 30.
Part of the reason for the delegation’s overall financial advantage is House Speaker John Boehner’s extraordinary ability to raise money. The $32 million figure includes $15.1 million from one of Boehner’s three fundraising committees — he also has a Boehner for Speaker fundraising committee and a leadership PAC, the Freedom Project. Add those two groups in, and Boehner has raised more than $88 million this campaign cycle.
The West Chester Twp. Republican spent only about $1 million on his primary this year, with the rest of that money going to other members, as well as to paying the cost of national fundraising efforts. He has contributed more than $17 million from his committees to the National Republican Congressional Committee and cut more than $1.4 million in checks to members and candidates, according to a campaign spokesman.
Boehner faces Thomas Poetter, an education professor at Miami University, who had $59,694 in the bank as of June 30.
That incumbents have so much more than their challengers appears to give them a healthy advantage going into November. With few exceptions — see former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who lost his primary to an underfunded political novice earlier this year — money matters, allowing candidates to buy TV ads and spread their message to voters.
“Statistics certainly show that most races are won by the candidate who has more money than the person they’re running against,” said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a campaign fundraising watchdog.
But Columbus-area Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, said it is doable. He beat Democrat incumbent Mary Jo Kilroy in 2010, outraising her slightly.
“It can be done,” he said. “There are challengers outraising incumbents all over the country. It just doesn’t happen to be happening in Ohio … It’s not like incumbency is insurmountable.”
Without an apparent contest, many Ohio members end up donating to their party.
Turner, R-Dayton gave $105,550 to the NRCC, including a $100,000 donation on June 13 and a $5,000 contribution to its incumbent support program June 19, according to FEC records.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, has also given a significant amount to the party, transferring $250,000 to the NRCC on May 28. He gave another $100,000 in February.
Though both were likely responding to a challenge by Boehner earlier this year to donate to vulnerable House Republicans, the contributions could have an added bonus: Both men are considered possible contenders for chairmanship of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Turner has announced his plans to run for the chairmanship; Jordan, whose name has been repeatedly mentioned for the spot, has yet to rule it out.
Bryner said contributions to fellow Republicans could provide long-term benefits for House members seeking to move up. “Being a prolific fundraiser does help you get better committee positions,” she said. “It can help you with your standing in the party.”
In some cases, incumbents raise more than they need because they fear outside groups pouring resources into their races will create viable opposition where there appeared to be none.
That possibility became acutely real to Boehner during the primary season, when two Tea Party candidates aimed to take him out. The Tea Party Leadership Fund, a national organization, and its conservative allies spent some $300,000 on yard signs, Facebook ads and billboards supporting one of Boehner’s opponents. Boehner responded with frequent appearances in the district, pouring $1 million into his race.
He won the primary with nearly 69 percent of the vote.
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