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In congressional races, two cash-poor challengers

By Jerry Zremski, The Buffalo News, N.Y.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

July 19--WASHINGTON -- If money really does talk in politics, then it's looking as if the conversation in the Buffalo area's two congressional races is going to be very one-sided this year.

Rep. Brian Higgins had more than 25 times as much campaign cash on hand on June 30 as did his Republican rival, former radio personality Kathy Weppner.

And while Rep. Chris Collins had $561,973 to spend, the campaign of his Democratic opponent, Orchard Park police officer Jim O'Donnell, is $656 in debt. What's more, O'Donnell is hampered by the fact that he is a cop, meaning it's illegal for him to go dialing for dollars.

The two local congressional races, one in a heavily Democratic urban district and the other in the GOP stronghold stretching from the Buffalo suburbs to the Rochester suburbs, are by no means considered among the most competitive in the country. Not surprisingly, then, the fundraising figures included in reports filed with the Federal Election Commission portray two financial mismatches.

Perhaps most notably, the campaign finance reports show that Weppner -- who for years won a loyal audience on WBEN as the conservative "Kathy from Williamsville" -- has not been able to trade on her name recognition for campaign cash.

Weppner has raised $31,748 for her campaign, including $15,000 she loaned to her campaign. She got a $2,600 donation from local developer and tea party icon Carl P. Paladino, but the Republican establishment hasn't invested nearly as much in her race.

The Erie County Republican Committee, which by law can give no more than a total of $1,000 to all federal candidates, gave her $250. The Grand Island Republican Committee donated $200, while the West Seneca Republican Committee chipped in $100.

Add it all up, and Weppner had $25,905 on hand as of June 30.

Asked about her fundraising totals, Weppner downplayed the importance of money in the race.

"After interacting with thousands and thousands of Western New Yorkers, your assumption that this election will simply be won with money is questionable based on my conversations with most voters," she said. "Voters tell me that Mr. Higgins' record on the issues I've cited place him at a disadvantage in Western New York."

Weppner also appeared to be offended that anyone was asking about her campaign finances.

"I find it very strange that with the humanitarian crisis at our border, our Marine sitting in a jail in Mexico, the Benghazi fiasco, the IRS scandal, the Obamacare disaster, our veterans dying on waiting lists, the Middle East being overrun by ISIS, our debt ready to sink us and Buffalo's jobless poor, that your focus is limited to campaign finances," she said.

Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said Weppner's campaign chest, while small, was not surprising.

"It's not terrible if you compare it to some other people who have run for this seat," Langworthy said. "It's an uphill slog. This race is not on any target lists, so that eliminates PAC (political action committee) donations."

O'Donnell's uphill slog

It's an uphill slog, too, for O'Donnell, who is challenging incumbent Collins, the Clarence Republican. O'Donnell's June 30 campaign report not only showed him $656 in debt, it also showed that he had raised only $1,305 so far.

There's a reason for that paltry figure.

"I'm a police officer, so it's a misdemeanor for me to ask for money," O'Donnell said, referring to state law that prohibits police officers from asking for contributions.

Of course, asking for money ranks somewhere between breathing and eating as a time-consuming pastime for modern politicians, so O'Donnell's inability to do so puts him at a grave disadvantage to Collins.

For that reason, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida lawmaker who heads the Democratic National Committee, called O'Donnell to ask him to quit his day job. He said he was reluctant to do so.

"I'm not going to be able to run all the commercials you would usually see for a race like this, but I'm going to make up for that with good old-fashioned door-to-door work and putting a lot of miles on my F-150," O'Donnell said.

And if he wins, O'Donnell plans to introduce legislation reforming campaign finance laws. "How wonderful would it be if our legislators all spent all of their time legislating instead of fundraising," he said.

For now, though, there is no such law, which raises the question: Why did the Democratic Party nominate a congressional candidate who can't ask anybody for money?

"We knew that this was going to be a hindrance, but you have to go with what you've got," said Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner. "We still feel very good about Jim. He's a strong, young community leader, and we're glad he's our candidate. You can't always have the perfect scenario."

Set up for success

Then again, Higgins and Collins seem to be enjoying the perfect scenario for their coming campaigns. Both incumbent lawmakers have plenty of cash on hand to battle their underfunded opponents.

As of June 30, Higgins had $656,993 in hand for the rest of the campaign, after having raised $688,571 since his 2012 re-election.

Many of the region's business and community leaders have donated to the Buffalo Democrat, including several big-name local Republicans who attended a fundraiser for him last year, such as GOP fundraiser Anthony Gioia. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Higgins got about a third of his donations from political action committees, but most of his money came from within New York State.

Higgins now represents a deep blue district centered in Buffalo, but he has kept up a strong fundraising pace for a reason, said his campaign spokesman, Chuck Eaton.

"The Higgins for Congress campaign doesn't focus on how other campaigns operate; instead we work hard to support Congressman Higgins' efforts to continue his fight for Western New York," Eaton said. "Accordingly, all challenges are taken seriously. An unfortunate but necessary component of running a modern federal campaign is fundraising, and the campaign is prepared for any eventuality."

Meanwhile, Collins has raised $829,648 so far for his race and spent $283,693 on his campaign operation. A Center for Responsive Politics analysis shows that about 55 percent of his funding has come from political action committees, with PACs representing finance, insurance and real estate leading the way, followed by conservative groups and miscellaneous businesses.

While Higgins and Collins' fundraising totals may seem high, they're actually far lower than the $1.2 million the typical House member has raised so far this year. And Collins' fundraising has not paid off the $500,000 in personal funds that he loaned to his 2012 campaign to defeat Democratic incumbent Kathleen C. Hochul.

Given that paying back that loan would leave Collins with only $61,973 to run his campaign, "he's not going to pay any of that money back any time soon," said Collins' campaign spokesman, Chris Grant.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com

___

(c)2014 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

Visit The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.) at www.buffalonews.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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