Putting First-Quarter Senate Fundraising Into Perspective

Stuart Rothenberg April 23, 2013 · 3:00 PM EDT

For political junkies in a non-election year, the release of quarterly fundraising reports by incumbents and potential candidates provides one of the few moments of true delight. After all, the reports are filled with numbers, giving us quantitative measures of fundraising strength and potential electoral success.

However, those Federal Election Commission reports aren’t nearly as useful as you may think.

I went back to the spring of 2011 to look at what knowledge we could have deduced back then from first quarter Senate reports, and there were plenty of contests where the FEC numbers were misleading rather than enlightening.

In the Indiana race, Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar held a rather comfortable advantage over primary challenger Richard Mourdock — $3 million to $121,000, yet Mourdock ultimately won the nomination. Club for Growth money isn’t reflected in these reports, which also couldn’t possibly reflect the antagonism that many Indiana conservatives came to feel toward the veteran establishment conservative senator.

In Massachusetts, the first quarter FEC report showed Republican Sen. Scott P. Brown with $8.3 million in cash on hand, a huge early war chest that overshadowed all other potential challengers. But Elizabeth Warren had not yet filed an FEC report, because she did not announce her candidacy for the Democratic nomination until September 2011.

Fundraising numbers in 2011 from the Nebraska Senate race suggested that Attorney General Jon Bruning would be the GOP nominee — he had $1.2 million to Don Stenberg’s $13,000 — but the nomination, and the Senate seat, eventually went to Deb Fischer, who didn’t officially announce her candidacy until January of 2012.

The first quarter 2011 Texas fundraising numbers gave us no reason to think that Ted Cruz would be the GOP Senate nominee. He ended that period in third in terms of cash-on-hand, and that was without Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the race. Turnout in the runoff was a much bigger factor than money spent.

And in Virginia, George Allen ended March with more than $1.2 million in the bank, while Tim Kaine, who won the contest, did not file a statement of candidacy until early April.

As I noted in a March 12 post, “outside” and party independent expenditure spending is increasingly important these days. But first-quarter FEC reports in the off-year particularly are of limited value, because many eventual candidates haven’t entered races yet.

So, as you look at the first quarter FEC numbers for 2014 Senate contests, remember that they offer only a snap shot of where the races stand now, not where they will end up next November.