Murtha Challenger’s Fundraising Is Less Than Meets The Eye

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Since Democratic Congressman John Murtha made the bone-headed move earlier this month of calling his constituents racists, the GOP has grown hopeful that it might pick up off his southwest Pennsylvania House seat.

The National Republican Campaign Committee last week spent $84,000 to run ads in support of Murtha’s Republican challenger, William Russell. That prompted the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to go on the air today with an ad supporting Murtha — one of the most prominent Democrats in the House, and a close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

There’s no doubt that Murtha’s comments have given Russell an outside shot — this week, the respected political analyst Charlie Cook moved the race into his “Likely Democratic” category, after having previously considered it a Democratic lock.

Perhaps most significantly, Russell appears to have been raking in campaign dollars. Over the weekend, the Tribune-Democrat of Johnstown, Penn breathlessly reported: “When it comes to raising money, political newcomer William Russell continues to outpace his opponent, longtime U.S. Rep. John Murtha.”

But it may turn out to be a steeper climb for Russell than the GOP, or some in the press, know.

As we reported in July, Russell is a client of BMW Direct. That’s the Republican consulting firm whose business model appears to consist of tapping national lists of GOP donors to raise a lot of money, via direct-mail appeals, for long-shot candidates (which is exactly what Russell was before Murtha’s gaffe). Then, BMW charges the candidate nearly the sum total of what it raised, for expenses related to the fundraising effort itself.

For instance, we noted in July, based on FEC filings, that Russell had raised $669,534 from April through June. That’s an impressive amount — until you consider that, after paying expenses to BMW and its various affiliates, Russell came out only $27,431 ahead.

A new look at FEC records suggests that during the July-September quarter, Russell actually walked away with an impressive haul, even after BMW took its cut. But it also shows that he was still paying the firm an unually large amount for coordinating a fundraising appeal. In that quarter, Russell raised a total of $1,592,451, but paid BMW $585,834.33, leaving him with just over a million.

And in the first half of October, Russell raised $302,938, but after paying BMW and its affiliates, was left with $81,571.

In other words, since April, Russell has technically raised over $2.5 million. But after paying BMW Direct for helping raise money, he was left with just over $1.1 million.

To be sure, $1.1 million is certainly nothing to scoff at for a little-known congressional candidate. But given that Murtha has spent over $2 million — which presumably went to actual campaign activities, rather than self-financing fund-raising efforts — it’s less impressive than some Republicans, and some in the press, may want to believe.

And of course, whether or not Russell pulls it off, BMW will get its cut.