WASHINGTON – Democrats carrying significant campaign debt after winning a string of House and Senate races are grumbling about President-elect Barack Obama's financial reserves, saying the party's leader is sitting on a pile of cash while Democratic leaders are broke.
Obama's organization retains some $30 million after his successful presidential bid, but it's unclear how the Democratic president-in-waiting might use the money. Members of his party are doing their best to appeal for the funds without appearing greedy, ungrateful or hostile to their new leader.
"If I was a top adviser to the president elect, I wouldn't necessarily be advocating saving those dollars," said Raymond Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. "It was critically important that we not repeat what happened in '93, '94," when President Bill Clinton held the purse strings and Democrats lost 54 U.S. House seats and eight senators during midterm elections.
"We need the resources to build the national grass roots network for the Obama agenda. We need to make sure the president is successful and that the administration fulfills his promises," Buckley said.
The Democratic National Committee is carrying about $5 million in debt, with almost $12 million cash on hand. DNC officials say they expect to have the debt paid by the end of the year. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee carries some $19 million in debt and less than $3 million on hand. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is nearly $13 million in debt.
Obama raised more than $745 million during his marathon campaign, more than twice the amount obtained by his rival, Republican John McCain. In his latest finance report, Obama reported raising $104 million in more than five weeks immediately before and after Election Day.
"This is the first presidential candidate and president who has not been publicly financed in the general election," said Ken Gross, a former Federal Election Commission lawyer. "Every other president since Jimmy Carter has not had excess funds."
Obama opted not to participate in public funding system. In exchange, he was able to continue raising money, while McCain accepted $84 million in taxpayer money, and the spending restrictions that went with it, through the public financing system.
"The only example that comes to mind is John Kerry," Gross said. "He finished his primary campaign with a $15 million surplus. That created some grumbling, since he lost."
Democrats blamed Kerry's loss, in part, on a campaign hierarchy that didn't spend wisely or aggressively. Kerry's own campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, called it "gross incompetence to hoard that money when the race was bound to be so close."
Obama aides are aware of the stigma and don't want to appear inelegant or selfish. They are weighing whether to keep the money to build a massive grass roots program to support his agenda, or to cycle that money to the party apparatus. Both ideas have strong advocates, but it's unclear to those involved which way Obama will go.
"We aren't in a position to announce what the next steps for our organization are today, but are continuing a dialogue with our supporters about their vision for how we move forward," said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt.
Party officials around the country say the campaign leaders have signaled they shouldn't expect the money to come to them directly, if at all. Instead, many party officials expect Obama to use his funds to advance his own priorities, to support his massive Internet-based organization and to have cache for special causes. With almost 4 million donors, Obama's fundraising list could prove golden for future Obama-backed drives.
"Right now, it looks like the sky is the limit," Gross said.
Obama aides emphasize the campaign expects to continue having expenses, along with tax obligations and political operations. They also say Obama has little interest in bankrolling state committees or individual candidates. Those involved say the logical option is the Democratic National Committee, although no one is pressing for a quick transfer.
On Wednesday, Obama send a fundraising e-mail to his supporters asking them to help retire that debt by buying coffee mugs or fleece sweat shirts. Obama and Democratic aides alike say they would use similar efforts going forward, but were aware that asking too often could dilute the effectiveness of the list.
Legally, Obama can donate the extra money to charity, transfer it to another political campaign, or dole it out in $2,000 increments to local candidates, Gross said.
"That's not too attractive, but it's something," Gross said.