WASHINGTON -- Inside a warmly decorated dining room about six miles from Capitol Hill one evening this week, the hostess of a $500-a-person cocktail party praised U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell for his courage in trying to change Washington.
She spoke of how her daughter, a UNC Chapel Hill student, had worked for Kissell's campaign last year, praising his work ethic, his intellect and his sincerity.
"About the only thing Larry isn't good at," Susie Taylor continued, "is fundraising."
The roomful of supporters laughed knowingly.
Kissell, a freshman Democrat from Biscoe, hasn't been able to shake his reputation as a weak fundraiser. He was labeled as such recently in a Capitol Hill newspaper and reminded of it at Wednesday's party.
Next week, Kissell is expected to release his third-quarter fundraising totals. His office says they won't comment on fundraising matters, but he has held several events in recent weeks, including one -- for a ticket price of up to $5,000 - -on the last day of the fundraising period.
Two Republican opponents both claim their reports will show amounts in the six figures.
At the end of the last fundraising quarter, June 30, Kissell had $214,000 in cash on hand for a race that could eventually cost several million dollars.
Kissell's fundraising success in the coming months has implications beyond the 8th Congressional District. Democrats in Washington need to hold as many tightly contested seats as possible in what is expected to be a good year for Republicans in 2010. The party could find itself spread thin in helping vulnerable incumbents around the country, and it might not have as much money to help Kissell next year as it did in the past.
"For whatever reason, he doesn't raise money. He doesn't like to raise money," said Stuart Rothenberg, of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter in Washington. "One of the key elements of a strong candidate is being willing to spend hours on the phone to raise money."
In the 2008 cycle, Kissell raised $1.5 million -- less than half the $3.8 million brought in by his opponent, Republican incumbent Robin Hayes.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to the House, chipped in another $2.4 million to help Kissell, according to the Campaign Finance Institute.
The support might not be there next cycle, Rothenberg said.
"There's a lot of money in Charlotte, and if you represent even part of Charlotte and you're in the majority, you ought to be able to raise money if you put your mind to it," he said. "It's just effort."
Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the DCCC, declined to talk about Kissell's fundraising, but in a statement, he called Kissell a "battle-tested campaigner" and "an independent and tireless advocate" for constituents.
Wednesday night, Kissell rode to a private home in Washington's Cleveland Park neighborhood with Biden. Also present at the event was U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, a Charlotte Democrat.
After being introduced, Kissell told the 60 or so supporters gathered there of his awe at standing alongside the vice president, saying that for someone with his background to have come so far is "a miracle."
"That's what's magical about this nation," he said.
Kissell smiled quietly as Biden spoke of his background and work in Congress.
"He understands your problems," Biden told the crowd.
Biden -- who grew up in Scranton, Penn. -- also joked that he and Kissell might have been among the only members of Congress to get a pay raise when they came to Washington.
Kissell, who hails from a textiles background and was a high school teacher a year ago, earned a salary of $49,000, according to his financial disclosure report.
His opponent last year, Hayes, was heir to a textiles fortune and worth an estimated $80 million to $170 million, according to financial disclosure reports. Hayes loaned his own campaign $250,000 in the race's closing weeks last year.
Now that Kissell has nine months of congressional work behind him, it should be easier for his campaign to talk about his legislative successes, his committee work and his benefits to constituents, Rothenberg said.
But Republicans are watching those very issues carefully to look for soft spots.
Whereas Kissell was a blank slate last year who could shape his own profile, that's different now, said Andy Seré, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to get Republicans elected to the House of Representatives.
"He now has a record that he's going to be accountable for," Seré said. "So we view him as highly vulnerable."
Within that record are votes for the 2010 fiscal year budget, for a children's health care expansion that increased tobacco taxes, and for the $787 billion economic recovery package, Seré said.
That stimulus bill vote could haunt Kissell, Biden acknowledged Wednesday.
"He had the nerve and the wisdom to take a chance," Biden told supporters. He turned to Kissell. "Even though I know you got the living devil beat out of you at home."
Kissell's two Republican opponents, retired Army U.S. Col. Lou Huddleston and business owner and veteran Tim D'Annunzio, hope to take advantage of those votes. Both campaigns say they feel confident about their fundraising so far.
Kissell chief of staff Leanne Powell said in a statement that Kissell "is a good congressman, and that is why he'll be re-elected."
This week at least was a fundraising success for the incumbent.
Wednesday's event with Biden, his office said, raised between $40,000 and $50,000.