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Senators up in 2012 slow to raise funds; Webb and Ensign lag the most

By Aaron Blake

Republican Sen. John Ensign and Democratic Sen. Jim Webb are raising very little money as they inch closer to either 2012 reelection campaigns or retirement.

Both men are thought to be potential retirees next cycle, and their anemic fundraising suggests neither is gearing up for any kind of campaign battle at this point.

Ensign (R-Nev.) is dealing with legal bills and a federal investigation after it was revealed that he'd had an affair with a former staffer. In the third quarter, Ensign raised just $18,550 and spent more than $550,000 on legal fees, seeing his cash on hand drop from $961,000 to $280,000 in three months.

That's not a great position for someone who could face both a primary and general election challenge in 2012. Ensign said shortly after the scandal broke that he would seek reelection, but these things have a way of changing over time. (Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said he would run again this year, before deciding against what would have been a very difficult bid.)

Webb (D-Va.), meanwhile, had to be drafted into running for Senate the first time, and the big question now is whether he wants to do it again. In the third quarter, he raised just $16,620 and had $471,000 in the bank - both numbers the least of any Democrat who looks to be in for a hard challenge in 2012.

About half of Webb's contributions in the third quarter came through ActBlue, a fundraising tool used by Democrats in which a candidate does not have to actively solicit donations. Another $11,400 came from political action committees, and only six individuals contributed directly to Webb's campaign.

Over the nearly four years since he's been elected, Webb has raised just more than $1 million. He was a weak fundraiser even when he was a candidate (he needed national party help to win the primary in 2006), but $16,000 raised suggests little effort at all.

He sent out a fundraising e-mail last December, which some took as a sign that he was likely to run again. A spokesman, Will Jenkins, said Webb is focused on helping Democrats in 2010.

"Senator Webb has not yet announced whether he will run for a second term," Jenkins said.

A spokeswoman for Ensign said the senator has been working on winning "back the trust of Nevadans." Ensign has been holding official events across the state, but hasn't been a public face in the campaigns of Republicans seeking office this year.

"Senator Ensign plans to aggressively fundraise starting in the first quarter of next year," spokeswoman Jennifer Cooper said.

Slow fundraising, while not a dead give-away, is often an indicator that a senator may pack it in. The four years before your two-year election cycle is a great time to raise money and try to ward off a tough challenge before it materializes.

Other potentially vulnerable members have raised far more than Ensign or Webb. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) raised $511,000 in the third quarter, while Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) raised $302,000, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) raised $285,000, and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) raised $297,000. (Hatch could face a tea party-inspired primary challenge.)

Senators who have retired in recent years have often slacked off during the preceding cycle. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) raised $35,000 in the third quarter of 2008 before retiring this year, and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) raised just $2,000 in the same quarter. A trio of 2008 retirees -- former Sens. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and John Warner (R-Va.) -- each raised less than $30,000 in the third quarter of 2006, just before their reelection campaigns would have begun.

Ensign and Webb aren't the only potential 2012 targets who have been slow to hit the fundraising circuit.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) raised $86,000 in the third quarter, while Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) each raised about $130,000. On the GOP side, Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) raised $51,000 and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) raised $106,000.

Webb, McCaskill and Tester have each raised between $1 million and $1.4 million over the past four years, which ranks near the bottom of the Democratic conference. Lieberman has raised less than half a million dollars, which could endanger him if he seeks another term (possibly against Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy).

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) raised just $234,000, including exactly $0 in the third quarter. That's par for the course for Akaka, so it doesn't necessarily hint that the 86-year-old will retire. But outgoing Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) is already hinting at a 2012 challenge, so Akaka may have to watch his back.

On the GOP side, Kyl and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) each raised less than $750,000 between 2006 and now. Snowe also might face a tea party-inspired primary challenge.

Only one incumbent facing a ballot threat on Tuesday raised less than $2 million in the four years before the election cycle: Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), considered the most vulnerable incumbent senator in the country.

So far, the fundraising numbers from Webb, McCaskill, Tester, Kyl, Ensign, Snowe and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) -- who also raised less than $2 million over the last four years -- suggest we could have some of the most unprepared incumbents in some time -- and another wide-open election cycle.

By Aaron Blake  | October 27, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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