WASHINGTON — Call it the incumbent protection system.
The stockpiles of cash some Massachusetts House members amassed this election cycle suggest a bare-knuckle battle for survival. Except most don’t have anyone to fight.
Lawmakers are raising millions, even though only three of nine Democratic representatives face a Republican opponent. That means no end to fund-raiser breakfasts in Washington or hand-shaking dinners on the Cape. The rise of unlimited spending has helped fuel a nonstop fund-raising cycle where politicians fill their campaign coffers to ward off unexpected predators, cozy up to allies, and signal political ambition.
Even without opponents, members use these treasure troves to make contributions to congressional candidates and show dedication to a broader political effort.
“The nature of politics is you’re just trying to win friends and influence people, and building a war chest allows you to do that,” said Patrick Kennedy, a former Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, who noted contributions to his colleagues helped him land on the House Appropriations Committee.
The two House members with the largest stashes, Representatives Richard Neal of Springfield and Joseph Kennedy III from Brookline, face no real opposition.
Neal has raised more than $1 million this cycle, according to the Federal Election Commission, He sat on $2.4 million by the end of June, his greatest campaign war chest yet.
Both stand to benefit. Neal, the delegation’s dean and ranking member of the powerful Ways & Means Committee, plays a key leadership role. And Kennedy, whose name tends to induce cash flows, has just launched a national political career.
“Any member who has ambition to run for higher office, whether they have the opportunity or not . . . will be shaped by the money they have in their campaign,” said Marty Meehan, the University of Massachusetts Lowell chancellor and a former Lowell Democrat who left Congress with $5 million in his campaign war chest.
Neal and Kennedy, in the midst of a five-week congressional recess, were not available to comment.
William Tranghese, a Neal spokesman, said the congressman’s fund-raising reflects his efforts to help Democrats recapture the House. Like other Democratic leaders, “he is generously contributing to incumbents and candidates across the country in a transparent manner to make the 2014 campaign cycle a success,” he said.
Neal’s campaign committee has contributed more than $50,000 this cycle to candidates that include Representatives John Tierney of Salem, Connecticut Democrat Joe Courtney, and New Hampshire Democrat Ann McLane Kuster.
Nicole Caravella, a spokeswoman for the Kennedy campaign, said only that he does not take the support for granted.
The first-term congressman has become a hobnobbing presence, even out of state. Just this month, he traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., for a fund-raising event hosted by a local attorney.
The name doesn’t hurt.
“Obviously, it gets you attention,” said Patrick Kennedy, the former congressman.
These days, a financial cushion isn’t just a warning sign; it’s a life jacket.
A 2010 Supreme Court ruling opened the door to massive corporate donations, a move that could leave lawmakers at the mercy of well-funded attacks from outside groups.
“Candidates are forced to raise as much money as they can,” said Phil Johnston, former chairman of the state Democratic Party. “It’s a good preventive strategy and a good offensive strategy.”
Only Tierney’s seat is considered competitive in Massachusetts this year. He holds $1.2 million. Representative Stephen Lynch of South Boston has the smallest reserve at about $216,000, but he also spent part of the cycle vying for the Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Lynch lost to his colleague, Ed Markey, who sits comfortably on $2.1 million.
Few consider Markey’s Senate race, against Hopkinton selectman Brian Herr, a competitive one. But you wouldn’t know it from his campaign’s fund-raising pleas.
“Reaching our goal will show Karl Rove, the Koch brothers, and the Tea Party that our people-powered network is ready to roll in this year’s race,” one e-mail reads.
The spending shift also affects overall election costs.
“There is so much money required to run a race these days, you have to keep up the pace when you’re not threatened because otherwise there’s a horrible crunch,” said Viveca Novak, editorial director at the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks money in politics.
Representative Michael Capuano of Somerville, who considered a run for Kerry’s seat, didn’t have Markey’s funds. His current stash sits at $628,000. Representative Jim McGovern, who along with Capuano and Lynch faces no substantial challenger, has raised nearly $654,000 this cycle and has $371,000 available.
“It used to be you gave $1,000 and he or she would never forget you,” Johnston said. “Now, that’s chump change.”