ALBANY - Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already amassed a massive campaign fund two years before he runs again, while the Senate and Assembly majorities also have strong fundraising advantages over any challenge to Albany's status quo.
But state campaign finance reports filed this month also show a rare, successful attempt to rattle New York politics: The upstart independent Democrats in the Senate who split from their fellow party members are thriving as they seek to grow their four-member conference in the fall elections.
Still, how much money matters is debatable. If cynics were right that money is the trump card, then Rochester billionaire Thomas Golisano would have been one of New York's few three-term governors. Three times, he far outspent former Gov. George Pataki but got far fewer votes.
"You raise so much money because you don't know what the impact is of the money that you do spend," said political science professor Robert McClure of Syracuse University's Maxwell School. "As a campaign manager I say, 'Fifty percent of what I do works, but I don't know what 50 percent.'"
McClure said reporters and pundits fuel campaign fundraising by a near obsession with money totals in part because they provide an easy, tangible measure of a candidate's strength, whether that's accurate or not. That in turn prompts campaigns to raise more to appear stronger, which can then attract more donations.
"The normal argument about money in politics is the money causes votes, but we don't know that," he said, citing several losing campaigns that outspent opponents.
In 2006, Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins beat veteran Republican Sen. Nick Spano in Westchester, while Spano spent three times as much; in 2010, Democrat Tony Avella upset veteran GOP Sen. Frank Padavan in Queens, who spent more than Avella; and in 2010, Republican Mark Grisanti was outspent in a Democratic district in Buffalo, yet he beat Democratic Sen. Antoine Thompson.
"On a high level, it wards off opposition," said Maurice Carroll of the Quinnipiac University poll and a longtime New York political reporter. "On a lower level, it gets your message out."
And Cuomo put out a powerful warning to would-be opponents. He reported $19.3 million in his account, after raising $5.7 million in the last six months from his usual sources of real estate developers and big corporations. In 2010, he spent just over $20 million to win the office, and now he has the power of incumbency to disperse state money and grab media exposure.
"The fact that a popular governor has a zillion dollars in his pocket will make a Republican think twice about running," Carroll said.
In the races for 213 seats in the Legislature this fall, money for staffing and reaching voters is critical for challengers.
In the fight for control of the Senate, now held by Republicans 33-29, GOP campaigns have a total of $20.3 million compared to the Democrats' $3.8 million, according to an analysis by Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
The breakdown from each of the conferences' campaign committees is just as stark: The Republicans have $4.5 million on hand, while the Democrats have $719,000 and $1.45 million in debt. In addition, Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos has $2.1 million in his account.
The surprise is that the risky and unprecedented venture by four Democratic senators - Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx, Diane Savino of Staten Island, David Valesky of Central New York and David Carlucci of Orange-Rockland - has apparently paid off. They split from the Democratic conference a year ago, shunning what they called the dysfunction of the Democrats' 2008-2010 majority reign.
Now, their Independent Democratic conference, which often sides with Cuomo and the Republican majority, has $317,000 and will back its own candidates. The first is a challenger to 15-year veteran Sen. Neil Breslin, a popular Democrat representing Albany County.
Klein also has $1 million in his campaign that could be transferred.
In the Democrat-led Assembly, Speaker Sheldon Silver has the most of any legislator, with $2.8 million. The Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee has another $2.8 million, compared to $1.2 million for Republicans.
The sum is that those in power attract more money, which buys more power. It also forces politicians into what they derisively call "dialing for dollars" daily. Bigger contributions, usually from business or labor leaders, mean fewer calls, but come with more strings attached. Good-government advocates note only a fraction of New Yorkers donate to campaigns, and contributors mostly do or hope to do business with the state or are regulated by the state. Campaign contributions enable a donor to get the attention of key officials.
"It influences who will run because of the pressure to raise money," said Bill Samuels, co-founder of the EffectiveNY think tank and the New Roosevelt good-government group. "I think we lose a lot of good people."
Some, including Cuomo, say the answer is public, voluntary financing of campaigns. But even he hasn't made it a top priority, although it was a campaign issue.
"Everyone says, 'We want to take the money out of politics,' but we don't see anyone act," Samuels said.
Cuomo said it's up to voters to push lawmakers to make campaign finance a priority they can't ignore as they have for years while enjoying a better than 90 percent rate of re-election.
"The challenge of campaign finance is it's not high enough on the priority list of the people," he said.