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Franks’ campaign account is low, but re-election chances remain high

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WASHINGTON – Rep. Trent Franks has a problem that most members of Congress wouldn’t mind sharing: The Glendale Republican is so popular in his district that potential campaign donors don’t think he can lose.

That helps explain why Franks ended 2011 with just $9,194.81 in his campaign account, a paltry sum compared to the bankrolls of six figures or more for every other member of the state’s congressional delegation.

And while the delegation raised a combined $1 million in the fourth quarter of the year, Franks accounted for only $25,225 of that amount, according to the latest reports with the Federal Election Commission.

“Because I’m in a strong district and have been strongly re-elected each time, less funds are often necessary and often more difficult to raise,” Franks said. “They think you can’t lose.”

But Franks, now in his fifth term in Congress, has been down this road before.

“If you’ll look back at elections where there were potential challengers, we always raised more than enough to be competitive and we would do that in the future as necessary,” he said.

Franks does not carry campaign funds from one election cycle to another, choosing instead to give whatever extra money he has to other Republican candidates.

His approach is far from ordinary, according to campaign-finance experts.

“It is atypical,” said Anthony Corrado, a campaign-finance scholar and fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“Generally we tend to think of incumbents wanting to build large campaign war chests, either to fend off challengers or so they can give to other members of the party so they can win the battle in Congress,” Corrado said.

Most of Arizona’s other incumbents have done just that. Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Phoenix, is sitting on almost $1.5 million cash – an amount more standard for longtime incumbents, Corrado said.

Even former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Tucson, had amassed almost $1 million before she resigned last month to focus on her recovery from a gunshot wound. Her campaign has not yet said what it will do with her campaign funds.

Franks’ thin wallet is not raising any red flags for Arizona Republicans. His district is considered one of the most solidly Republican in the state, handing him a 2-to-1 margin of victory over his Democratic challenger in 2010.

“Congressman Franks is in a considerably safe Republican district,” said state party spokesman Shane Wikfors. “We’ll absolutely hold that district. That’s very low on our worry list.”

Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College in Maine, said parties often decide where to put their time and money based on the demographics and polling numbers of the district. For that reason, even though Franks does not have much in the bank, Democrats are unlikely to aggressively pursue his seat because it’s so solidly Republican.

“That’s the problem these days,” Corrado said. “It’s seen as a safe district and therefore he’s not facing the prospect of facing a major challenger.”

Democrats have not ruled out Franks’ seat this year, but admit it will be an uphill battle considering his popularity and the district’s demographics.

“We’re looking closely at the reports and certainly at what the Republicans are raising,” said Andy Barr, spokesman for the Arizona Democratic Party. “If we have a candidate for that district and we have opportunity there, we’re going to want to take advantage.”

Franks, first elected to Congress in 2002, has won re-election comfortably every two years, usually with little cash on hand. Despite his small campaign war chest this year, no challengers, Democrat or Republican, have announced a bid to unseat him.

But anything can happen between now and November, Franks said.

“There are three kinds of people that predict the future: Those who don’t know, those who don’t know they don’t know, and those who know they don’t know,” Franks said.

“But I’m certainly hoping to be re-elected,” he said. “We’ll do our very best.”