WASHINGTON — Democratic challengers raised more money than Republican incumbents in 20 competitive House races from California to Virginia during the first three months of the year, and President Barack Obama's party has the upper-hand in eight other districts where congressmen are retiring.
The early look at fundraising, laid out in reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, suggests momentum at this point may be on the Democrats' side as the party tries to wrest control of the House from the GOP.
Even so, the amounts candidates themselves have raised so far provide only a slice of the broader campaign finance picture.
Washington-based campaign committees that work to elect House Republicans and Democrats are sitting on stockpiles of cash they'll spend on the most competitive races, another area where Obama's party at this point has an edge. Outside groups aligned with both parties also are expected to spend millions of dollars to influence the outcome of several dozen competitive races.
Money matters, this year especially.
Candidates and parties alike will need hefty sums to pay for TV commercials and get-out-the-vote efforts that usually are more expensive in a presidential election year.
Democrats were quick to brag about their candidates' hauls.
"Nobody wants to make a bad investment," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect House Democrats.
Republicans just as swiftly downplayed the numbers.
"Our Republican members have more money in the bank and are well-positioned for victory in November," said Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm for House Republicans.
Indeed, while Democratic candidates generally have raised the most money this year, GOP incumbents have more money in the bank than their Democratic rivals in 16 races where Democrats took in more money than Republicans in the first quarter. In some cases, Democrats' hauls are also inflated by self-donations that may or may not continue going forward.
And while the DCCC has brought in $83.6 million to the NRCC's $73.7 million, Democrats have burned through money more quickly. The DCCC had $22.8 million on hand compared to $27.1 million for the NRCC when the fundraising quarter ended in March.
Republicans control the House, 242-190 with three vacancies that were Democratically held seats. Democrats would need a net gain of 25 – plus hold on the three vacant seats – to retake control. That push is complicated by once-a-decade redrawing of congressional district boundaries. The process has made several longtime Democrats more vulnerable and made more Republican the seats of some GOP incumbents that Democrats might otherwise have targeted.
Nevertheless, Israel insisted the House is "within range" of a Democratic takeover but pointedly stopped short of claiming Democrats will take the majority.
House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, last week suggested that Democrats could well take back the House.
"I would say that there is a 2-in-3 chance that we win control of the House again, but there's a 1-in-3 chance that we could lose," Boehner recently told Fox News. "We've got a big challenge, and we've got work to do."
It's a concession he hadn't made before, but it could have been intended in part to fire up the party's grass-roots backers and deep-pocketed donors.
At first glance, it seems Democrats will have the cash to make it a fight.
Democratic challengers brought in more than Republican incumbents in competitive districts in California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Virginia during the first quarter of the year.
Democrats also took in more than Republicans in eight seats – four they hold, four held by the GOP – that are open because of retirements. That includes races in Arizona, California, Florida, North Dakota, Illinois, Indiana, Texas and Washington.
In some of those districts, Democrats have already turned the first-quarter fundraising into an overall advantage.
In Florida's 10th District, former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings raised $331,598 compared to $148,033 for her opponent, Rep. Daniel Webster. She had $482,251 cash on hand at the end of March compared to $390,621 for Webster.
In New Hampshire's 2nd District, Democratic challenger Ann McClane Kuster outraised Rep. Charlie Bass by about $83,000 and had $1,031,568 cash on hand compared to Bass' $790,416.
Elsewhere, Democrats have work to do to level the GOP's cash advantage.
In Minnesota's 8th Congressional District, for example, Democrats have high hopes for challenger Tarryl Clark, a former state lawmaker running against Rep. Chip Cravaack. Clark raised about $75,000 more in the quarter. But Cravaack still had more than $628,000 on hand compared to about $418,000 for Clark.
The gap is even more pronounced in other races: In New Jersey's 3rd Congressional District, Democrat Shelley Adler took in $310,927 compared to $295,824 for GOP Rep. Jon Runyan. But Runyan had $735,220 cash on hand compared to $290,674 for Adler.
Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College and a former House staffer, said fundraising usually is a good indicator of which races are competitive. On that score, he said, Democrats are doing well because more races are becoming competitive.
"It's a clear indicator that a candidate should be taken seriously. It doesn't necessarily mean that the incumbent will be outspent come November, but it does indicate there's a real race under way," he said.