WASHINGTON -- Democrats in numerous key Senate campaigns face a financial disadvantage this fall, according to strategists in both parties, the combined result of the priority given to John Kerry's bid for the White House, new fund-raising restrictions and the location of the most competitive races.
While developments in Oklahoma and Colorado sparked expressions of optimism from Democrats, most hotly contested Senate races are outside the 17 battleground states targeted by Kerry, a cluster of independent groups supporting him and the Democratic National Committee.
Democrats also lag in the fund-raising race between the party senatorial committees, trailing the Republicans in cash on hand by nearly $10 million at the end of March. And while Kerry works furiously to raise the money to compete with President Bush's record-setting war chest, the president raised $2.7 million for the GOP senatorial committee at one event in March, and has pledged to attend a dinner benefiting congressional candidates in June.
Dan Allen, a spokesman for the Senate GOP campaign committee, said the money advantage "will allow us to have more of an impact on the competitive races that are in good territory for the Republicans to begin with."
Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Senate Democratic campaign committee, conceded the GOP edge but said Democrats would have the money they need for the "small number of races that we need to impact."
Republicans hold a 51-48 Senate majority, with one Democratic-leaning independent. Democrats must gain two seats to win a majority, but were hit by the retirement of five incumbents in Bush's Southern stronghold.
More recently, though, Republican Sens. Don Nickles in Oklahoma and Ben Nighthorse Campbell in Colorado have announced retirement plans, and Democrats quickly fielded strong contenders in both states. "We're moving," asserted New Jersey Sen. Jon Corzine, who heads the Democratic senatorial committee.
Privately, though, numerous Democratic strategists conceded a significant financial disadvantage looms, the result of an unprecedented confluence of events.
Four years ago, many of the presidential battleground states -- Michigan, Washington, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania among them -- also had key Senate contests. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore poured money and personnel into the states, shaping the political terrain with television commercials and get-out-the-vote activities that spilled over to other races.
Two years ago, old fund-raising rules applied, and Republican and Democratic senatorial committees helped their candidates by raising tens of millions of dollars in donations of unlimited size.
This time, Kerry campaign officials say they don't expect the Massachusetts senator to compete strenuously for votes in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Oklahoma, Alaska or South Dakota, effectively leaving Democratic senatorial contenders largely on their own in states likely to support Bush's re-election by sizable margins.
The campaign has yet to decide how hard to fight for Colorado or Louisiana, two other states with high-profile Senate races, according to these officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
While the same unusual combination of factors applies to Republicans, Illinois is the only state with a key Senate race and no evidence so far of a significant investment by Bush's re-election campaign.
Other potentially competitive Senate races are in Florida and Pennsylvania, where both Bush and Kerry plan to spend millions in a struggle to prevail.
Nor can Democrats in non-battleground states expect much help from their party. Chairman Terry McAuliffe "sees the DNC as a presidential committee," devoted to electing Kerry, said one Democrat with knowledge of recent strategy discussions.
"Until they make dollars out of flubber, it's impossible to make everything stretch as far as we would like it to go," said DNC spokesman Jano Cabrera. "While we will be focusing on some targeted states, we intend to work with every state party to support the Democratic ticket all across the board," he added.
Jim Jordan, spokesman for a cluster of well-funded independent groups set up to defeat Bush, signaled that the 33 non-battleground states can expect little help in establishing get-out-the-vote operations.
"We will be, resources allowing, active outside the battleground states," he said, although he conceded, "We cannot afford to put together full-fledged field programs in all 50 states."
That puts the onus for assisting candidates largely on the senatorial committees.
In recent years, both committees bankrolled television advertising designed to help contenders in key races. Democrats spent $1 million or more in each of 14 races in 2002; Republicans did likewise in 13.
But those commercials were funded by so-called soft money, the unlimited donations from individual, corporations and unions that were banned by a campaign finance law that took effect late in 2002.