By Steven Harmon
Contra Costa Times

Posted: 12/21/2009 04:25:50 PM PST
Updated: 12/21/2009 09:55:18 PM PST

SACRAMENTO — A brutal economy has put Democrats at an even worse cash disadvantage than they could have expected in seeking to win back the governorship against a potential Republican candidate with unlimited means to finance a campaign.

Big-money donors gave cash less freely in 2009, resulting in a relatively lackluster year of fundraising, Democrats acknowledged.

“It’s tough out there, no question,” said Democratic fundraiser Dan Weitzman, who helps raise cash for the state Democratic Party, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and a handful of legislative candidates.

“Because of (fundraising) limits and because of how hard it is out there, I’m having to figure out new ways to raise money.”

The state Democratic Central Committee has raised $7.9 million this year, compared to the $11.9 million it raised in 2005, the year before Democratic nominee Phil Angelides challenged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his 2006 re-election campaign.

Receipts through the end of the year will not be fully reported until the end of January, so the state party has not closed its books on 2009 yet. But at the end of October, the party had raised $7.76 million, and since then had raised only another $151,500 in major contributions of $5,000 or more with less than two weeks to go in 2009. The Democrats had $5.6 million cash on hand, compared to the $6 million they had on hand heading into 2006.

Help from the state party will be critical to offset the cash advantage the Republican gubernatorial candidate will have. Party officials, however, are confident that presumed Democratic nominee Jerry Brown’s strong name brand has its own valued cache.

“People don’t have a lot of discretionary income like they have in the past,” said John Burton, the state Democratic Party chairman. “But I think we’ll be fine. People won’t put the state in the hands of somebody who says I’m a great businesswoman who forgot to vote. “… It’s always tough to raise money for a party. I mean, who wants access to a party? But we’ll work as hard as we need to.”

Compared to the Democrats’ fundraising challenges, giving to the state Republican party has hit bottom. Republicans have raised only $2.9 million this year, compared to $15.7 million they raised in 2005. While that bodes poorly for Republicans in legislative races, the GOP’s fundraising weaknesses would be moot in the gubernatorial race if former eBay CEO Meg Whitman or Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner emerge from the GOP primary, both of whom will be able to draw on vast personal fortunes.

Brown, the state’s attorney general who has yet to announce his candidacy but appears to be a lock as the nominee, scared off potential Democratic rivals largely because of his reputation for the relationships he has with party benefactors. But the $6.6 million he’s raised this year — and about $10 million that he has in the bank — fall short in comparison to the $9 million raised by Angelides in the year heading into the 2006 campaign and the $17 million that Angelides had on hand.

Angelides had the advantage of raising his money over several years while serving as state treasurer and under pre-Proposition 34 contribution limits. He quickly squandered it in a slashing primary battle with the independently wealthy Steve Westly, and was left nearly defenseless against Schwarzenegger’s well-funded machine in the early weeks of the general election. Angelides had only $725,995 left heading into the general election campaign.

Brown, who won’t have to burn through cash in a primary as Angelides did, has raised more than $3 million in major contributions of $5,000 or more since he opened his exploratory committee for governor in October, when maximum individual contributions for him rose from $6,500 to $25,900. Donors can give a total of $51,800 each for the primary and general election campaigns.

With the actual campaign now in sight, Brown’s fundraising pace should pick up speed, bad economy or not, said Steve Glazer, Brown’s senior political adviser.

“Although he is not yet a declared candidate, our fundraising is robust and on track,” Glazer said. “Currently the primary field is clear, and we expect to be well funded for the general election.”

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