AMHERST -- The Massachusetts Democratic Party is launching an unprecedented effort to raise and spend cash in support of House and Senate candidates, in hopes of repelling the biggest Republican challenge to Democratic rule in the Legislature in more than a decade.
Party chairman Philip W. Johnston vowed yesterday to raise $500,000 by July 26, when the Democratic National Convention comes to Boston, and a total of $1 million by Sept. 14, the date of the state primaries.
The effort is the biggest fund-raising campaign ever for legislative races, Johnston said during an interview at the Massachusetts Democratic State Convention in Amherst. In the absence of widespread Republican challengers, legislative races have long been lower on the Democrats' priority list than races for statewide office.
"This is far more than we've ever spent in the history of the party -- four or fives times more," Johnston said, adding that $1 million is "only a minimum figure."
"We will raise beyond that if we feel it's required," he said.
The aggressive fund-raising is a clear sign that party leaders are taking seriously a Republican resurgence in Massachusetts. Late last month, state Republican party officials announced that 133 GOP candidates had filed papers to run in primaries for 125 House and Senate seats, making 2004 the biggest year for Republican legislative candidates since 1990.
Governor Mitt Romney and other top Republican leaders have vowed to try to topple the Democrats' dominance in the Legislature and pledged a total of $75,000 in support for the first 100 GOP candidates who jump into legislative races.
Under the law, political parties can donate $3,000 directly to a candidate's campaign, but can provide unlimited campaign items like yard signs, phone banks, and mailings.
The Democratic Party raised $2.5 million for the 2002 elections, but spent the bulk of that sum on state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien's losing gubernatorial campaign. Only $200,000 was spent on House and Senate candidates, Johnston said. Starting with just $100,000 in the bank for legislative races, Johnston said he would rely on House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, as well as rank-and-file Democrats, to help the party reach its fund-raising goals.
Comedian Jimmy Tingle is headlining a Democratic fund-raiser May 24 at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel that Johnston said is expected to net several hundred thousand dollars.
He said he would target party spending on a few legislative races he views as especially competitive, although most candidates with any sort of opposition would receive some financial help.
Four Democratic seats in the Senate are hotly contested, Democratic Party officials said. Those are the seats held by Senators Susan C. Fargo of Lincoln, Pamela P. Resor of Acton, Therese Murray of Plymouth, and Robert O'Leary of Barnstable.
"Those are the races where they're going to put significant resources and we're going to put significant resources," Johnston said.
Republicans now control 22 seats in the House and seven in the Senate, ensuring Democrats can override Romney's vetoes at will. Nineteen House Republicans and six Senate Republicans are running for reelection this fall; nine of the GOP House members and three of the Senate Republicans face Democratic challengers, said state Republican Party executive director Dominick Ianno.
In an interview, Ianno scoffed at Johnston's fund-raising goals.
"They also promised to run candidates against every Republican and they fell far short of that goal," Ianno said. "I would take that pledge with a grain of salt. It's possible they could do it, but we're just excited to have so many challengers running this year."
Ianno declined to say how much he would raise for Republican candidates, but party spending this year could reach new heights if recent races are any guide. Both parties spent about $100,000 on a close Senate special election this year between Angus McQuilken and Scott Brown. Brown, the Republican candidate, narrowly won the election.
Regardless of the outcome for the Democratic Party this fall, Johnston said the aggressive fund-raising for House and Senate races would continue in future years.
"The state party should continue to be focused on the Legislature," he said.
The Democrats' traditional ally, organized labor, also plans to invest money and manpower in legislative races, said Robert J. Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, who joined Johnston in rallying about 3,500 delegates at the Mullins Center with a blistering anti-Romney message.
Haynes said he would seek to mobilize the union's 400,000 members to campaign for Democratic candidates, although resources would be targeted to competitive races because some union members are out of state, campaigning for presumptive presidential nominee John Kerry in New Hampshire, Maine, and Ohio.
Haynes said he is heartened by Finneran's and Travaglini's involvement in the elections this year. "It's the first time their houses have been challenged to any great extent," Haynes said.
Woody Kaplan, a former Back Bay real estate developer who is now a full-time volunteer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, is also seeking to raise "several hundred thousand dollars" to defend Democratic state legislators who voted against the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, Johnston said. Many Democrats who favor same-sex marriage are facing challengers who are trying to exploit the issue, Johnston said. Kaplan could not be reached for comment.
Also at the convention yesterday, Cam Kerry, 53, a Brookline attorney who is John Kerry's younger brother, thanked the delegates for standing by his brother during his early years protesting the Vietnam War and when he ran for lieutenant governor and US Senate. Calling the presidential election a choice between a "narrow, radical vision of America" and "the values of optimism, equality, and opportunity," Cam Kerry said his brother needs the delegates' help "one more time."
When the Republicans launch attack ads, Cam Kerry urged the delegates to say, "John, we got your back," a refrain he returned to several times.