Joe Sestak is a man in a hurry.
After raising $3.3 million to win a seat in Congress from Pennsylvania last fall, Sestak predicted that the 2008 presidential race would soak up most of the political money. So he's raised nearly $1 million for a race that's 15 months away.
Sestak is one of 42 freshman Democrats intent on raising money for their 2008 races in large — and early — quantities. One goal, he readily admits, is to scare away the opposition, of which he has none so far.
"You'd like to think that it would dissuade somebody from getting in" to the race, says Sestak, whose district is in suburban Philadelphia.
"I think it makes people think about it," he says.
Faced with re-electing the largest freshman class since the Republican revolution of 1995, House Democratic leaders urged those with the toughest districts to raise between $600,000 and $1 million in the first six months of the year.
Political experts say the Democrats' fundraising prowess will make it difficult for Republicans to retake the House next year. They need a net gain of 16 seats.
"Based on the current environment and the map, Republicans are long to retake the House," says Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report. "The Democratic fundraising advantage makes it even tougher."
Heading the list is Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, whose $1.4 million in contributions is more than half what she raised during the 2005-06 campaign. She's among the top fundraisers in the House — sandwiched between leaders such as Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In Gillibrand's case, it hasn't stopped Republicans from entering the race in a district that backed President Bush in 2004.
"I am not at all intimidated by her fundraising," says Sandy Treadwell, a former state Republican chairman and one of several announced challengers. He raised $340,000 through June 30. "We will have the resources to run a very good campaign. I'm focused on raising dollars every day."
Rep. Ron Klein, D-Fla., is the second most prolific freshman Democrat when it comes to fundraising. He's raised nearly $1.3 million for his race in southeastern Florida — a district that cost him $4.2 million to win last time against veteran Republican congressman Clay Shaw.
"In order to raise that much money again, I need to be raising money right now," Klein says. "A lot of the reaction you get is, 'Didn't you just finish running?' "
Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., has raised nearly $800,000, more than all but eight Democratic freshmen. Like Sestak, he feels competition from Democratic presidential hopefuls.
"They're sucking all the money out of the atmosphere," Hall says. "There's definitely some burnout on the part of donors."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says none of his party's most vulnerable incumbents have been out-raised thus far, while Republicans face costly primaries in some districts and no declared challengers in others.
Republicans cite several districts, including in Kansas, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, where GOP incumbents defeated in 2006 are staging rematches. Some districts are so Republican that they have no shortage of potential challengers. In Rep. Christopher Carney's northeastern Pennsylvania district, the Cook Political Report lists 13.
"They will need that money in order to simply stay competitive," says Ken Spain of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
"We believe we have the issues and the terrain in our favor," he says.
That's what Democrats had in 2006, says David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, and it compensated for Republicans' money advantage in many districts Democratic freshmen are now defending.
But Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics says, "You can't win an occupied seat for less than a million dollars."
Congressional freshmen stay busy raising money
The total raised by new members of the U.S. House of Representatives during the first six months of this year, the amount from individuals and political action committees, and how much cash they have on hand, including leftover previous contributions:
Source: Federal Election Commission for January-June 2007