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Experts: Don't be fooled by funding gap in tight congressional races

WASHINGTON -- Incumbents in three Arizona congressional districts that have been deemed among the most competitive in the country have raised substantially more than their challengers, more than 3-to-1 in some cases.

But political experts said it's too early to count out the challengers. And too early to count campaign receipts, which are expected to roll in once hotly contested primaries are over.

"These are three very important races, they're at the top of our priority list and we've made a big commitment to highlighting them and figuring out a path to victory in all three," said Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The three races he referred to were Arizona's 1st, 2nd and 9th districts, held by Democratic Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, Ron Barber and Kyrsten Sinema, respectively.

All three were elected after the 2010 redistricting that created highly competitive districts, which are almost evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and nonaffiliated voters.

None have long records in Congress. Sinema was elected for the first time in 2012, and Barber was re-elected after winning a special election for his seat just months earlier. Kirkpatrick was first elected in 2008 then unseated in 2010 before running and winning again in 2012.

Since 2012, all three have raised substantial sums toward re-election bids, with each collecting at least $2 million and entering the final months of the campaign with more than $1 million on hand.

Only one of Barber's challengers, Republican Martha McSally, has come close in fundraising. McSally, who narrowly lost to Barber in 2012, had $1.1 million in the bank on June 30 to Barber's $1.5 million, according to the latest campaign finance reports from the Federal Election Commission.

None of Kirkpatrick's or Sinema's challenger had more than $337,000 on hand, according to the FEC.

But experts said it's not as simple as adding up the Republican fundraising and comparing it with what the Democrats have raised.

Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said noted that the challengers are still locked in competitive primaries, which can hurt fundraising.

"It's not just that donors might be dividing their attention or dividing their dollars between candidates," Gonzales said. "Some groups or individuals might not even want to get involved and give to anybody because they don't want to upset the other people in the race."

He said more money is likely to flow in to those districts after the primaries select a nominee.

Ruth Jones, a political science professor at Arizona State University, said in an email, "the key to many of these competitive races will be the outside money being spent on their behalf."

Scarpinato said Arizona has more competitive races this election cycle than any other state, and that picking up seats in the state is a national priority for the party.

"Arizona voters will determine whether Nancy Pelosi becomes speaker of the House again," Scarpinato said of the focus on the races.

DJ Quinlan, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, agrees that the three races will be competitive, but he thinks the incumbent Democrats are in good positions for re-election.

"We're very happy with where our three incumbent members of Congress are," Quinlan said.

"We know these districts are very, very competitive," he said. "But I think when you look at the fundamentals of the race, particularly fundraising, they're doing exceptionally well."

So while money matters, it is not the only deciding factor. Gonzales said that is particularly true in the likely rematch between Barber and McSally, who still has to win her primary against three lightly funded Republicans.

"I think that both candidates (Barber and McSally) are going to have a few million dollars. Both party campaign committees are going to be in. Outside groups are going to be in," Gonzales said. "There's going to be a lot of spending in this race.

"I think the race will be decided on other factors rather than who has the most money," he said, but added the two "will have more than enough money to make their case to voters."

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