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Senate Fundraising All-Stars

Although we’re more than 18 months away from the November 2010 elections, incumbents and challengers for the United States Senate nevertheless raised at least $40 million in the just-completed 1Q fundraising period. Early fundraising totals are important for at least three reasons. Firstly, money can be exchanged for goods and services, such as top-notch talent to plan and run one’s campaign. Secondly, money is often a proxy for “intangibles” that are otherwise hard to capture, such as organizational strength or enthusiasm within one’s base. Thirdly, and particularly early in a campaign, a strong fundraising total can discourage potential opposition whereas a weak one might attract it.

Here then are what in my judgment were the strongest and weakest fundraising totals in the 1st Quarter, broken down into incumbent and challenger divisions. We do grade somewhat on a curve: incumbents, all else being equal, should raise more money than challengers, candidates from larger states more than those from smaller ones, and candidates in competitive races more than those with only token opposition. Fundraising totals were found at the excellent

Most Impressive Fundraising Totals, Incumbent Division

1. Blanche Lincoln, D-Arkansas ($1,722,483). Lincoln has always relied far more on corporate PAC contributions than most Senators, and that revenue stream appeared to be in full force in the first quarter of 2009. Perhaps this was because corporations were soliciting her opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, although Lincoln also received a small amount of donations from labor PACs like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Either way, this is an impressive fundraising total for a Senator from a relatively small state who has been considered a relatively safe bet for re-election. It may be exactly the sort of total that is intended to deter serious Republican (or Democratic?) opposition.

2. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York ($2,347,245). Raising money in New York isn’t much more difficult than finding a good slice of pizza. Nevertheless, this is a tidy sum to raise for someone whom the general public feels quite ambivalently about. As elements of the Democratic establishment begin to consolidate around Gillibrand, it may discourage challenges both from the left and the right.

3. Harry Reid, D-Nevada ($2,234,309). Reid’s position is not entirely dissimilar from Lincoln’s — someone who could quite possibly be vulnerable under the right circumstances, but who benefits from being in a state where the opposition party has an exceptionally weak bench. With Democrats fearing a beheading like the one that happened to Tom Daschle in 2004, Reid will receive plenty of protection from institutional donors.

4. John McCain, R-Arizona ($2,577,178). Slightly less than half of this is a carryover from McCain’s Presidential campaign fund. Still, McCain’s senate fundraising committee has more than $3.6 million in cash-on-hand. This is another reason why he probably doesn’t have much to fear from Minuteman Project co-founder Chris Simcox, who will challenge McCain for the Republican nomination.

5. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota ($1,322,385). While this is not intrinsically a huge fundraising haul, it’s quite good for a small-state Senator who seems unlikely to face serious opposition. It seems intended to deter a challenge from North Dakota’s popular Republican governor, John Hoeven, who would probably still be an underdog to Dorgan but is the one GOPer who could keep things interesting.

Least Impressive Fundraising Totals, Incumbent Division

1. Roland Burris, D-Illinois ($845). No typo: Burris raised a grand total of eight-hundred and forty five dollars in the 1Q. In fact, as he’s accumulated more than $100,000 in debt, his campaign is already in the red. Burris, whose favorable ratings are in the teens, will need a miracle to survive an extremely competitive Democratic primary.

2. Jim Bunning, R-Kentucky ($262,981). Bunning, who is receiving little support from the Republican establishment, is going to have an awfully difficult time drawing enough money in to mount a fully-functional campaign. He was out-fundraised in the 1Q by Lieutenant Governor Daniel Mongiardo ($429,553), who nearly defeated him in 2004 and is one of several prospective Democratic opponents this time around.

3. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma ($17,189). This is a conspicuously low figure from Coburn, who seems less than entirely certain about whether he wants to run for re-election. If Dr. No exits stage (far) right, that could encourage popular Democratic governor Brad Henry, whose term will be up in 2010, to enter the Senate derby.

4. Barbara Boxer, D-California ($905,354). This wouldn’t be such a bad fundraising haul in Delaware or Kansas, but in California it could leave Boxer somewhat vulnerable, particularly to Carly Fiorina, whose experience as HP’s CEO will more likely than not translate into strong fundraising.

5. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa ($290,540). Grassley has denied rumors of retirement and should coast to victory if he runs, but this fundraising total is a little tepid and suggests he may still be hedging his bets.

Most Impressive Fundraising Totals, Challenger Division

1. Bill White, D-Texas ($1,876,173). John Cornyn’s public lamentations about losing a 60th seat to the Democrats seems in part intended as a last-ditch effort to prevent his colleague Kay Bailey Hutchison from bolting the Senate for the governor’s race, where business-friendly Democrats like White, the current Mayor of Houston, may be extremely competitive in an open-seat race.

2. Kendrick Meek, D-Florida ($1,512,602). In contrast to the relatively, uh, meek fundraising totals for Republican candidates in Florida (FL-13’s Vern Buchanan did the best at $526,104), Meek’s solid 1Q should have Democrats feeling better about his chances, and may give him a head start against non-Charlie Crist Republicans, although Meek still has a ways to go to translate that cash into popular support.

3. Rob Portman, R-Ohio ($1,704,501). Portman was expected to be a strong fundraiser so this is not surprising, but he is increasingly looking like a mild frontrunner in the race to replace George Voinovich, even if polling has showed him slightly behind the Democratic opposition.

4. Alexi Gioannoulias, D-Illinois ($1,145,220). Making this total more impressive is that it was collected in less than a month after Giannoulias announced his candidacy. With Democrats wanting to avoid any scenario in which their primary vote is divided up enough ways to make Roland Burris competitive, it could give him some significant momentum in Illinois.

5. John Sharp, D-Texas ($2,516,833). An undisclosed amount of this total comes from a personal loan from Sharp, the former Texas Comptroller and currently a wealthy principal in a Dallas-based consulting firm. But it reiterates the point that there’s a lot of Democratic money to chase down a prospective open seat in Texas.

Least Impressive Fundraising Totals, Challenger Division

1 (tie) Roy Blunt, R-Missouri ($559,620); Paul Hodes, D-New Hampshire ($301,997). These are not terrific numbers for two guys who are already in the Congress and who ought to be clear frontrunners for their party’s respective nominations. Although Blunt’s total was a little stronger than Hodes’s, he is also more vulnerable than Hodes to opposition both within his party and outside of it, as Democratic frontrunner Robin Carnahan, Missouri’s Secretary of State, raised more than $1 million last quarter.

3. Jennifer Brunner, D-Ohio ($207,236). Brunner’s totals significantly lagged those of Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher, who brought in $1,035,673 last quarter. With Democrats having good reason to fear Rob Portman’s organizational strength, Brunner will be under substantial pressure to improve her fundraising or Buckeye State Democrats may lose their appetite for a competitive primary.

4. Peter King, R-New York ($130,568). While there’s no particular reason for Democrats to worry about the bombastic King, who would be a heavy underdog against Gillibrand or any other Democratic opponent, this unimpressive fundraising total may deter him from even trying.

5. Marco Rubio, R-Florida ($254,498). Rubio, a telegenic young Cuban-American who is currently the Speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives, is an attractive candidate on paper, but is having trouble gaining traction either in the polls or in the fundraising game.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.