The next few weeks are critical in the chess match the House campaign committees are playing when it comes to deciding how to maximize their resources and where to spend millions in independent expenditure funds.
For House Democrats, October brings the reality that strategists will soon begin making more public moves to financially cut loose vulnerable incumbents.
National Republican Congressional Committee strategists will be moving money away from races where polling shows the Republican candidate poised for victory. They will also be determining which lower-tier races present real opportunities and warrant continued spending through Election Day.
As of last weekend, the NRCC had spent just under $6 million in 31 contests. Many of those expenditures were in places that have long been considered 2010 battlegrounds, such as the districts of Reps. Bobby Bright (D-Ala.) and Tom Perriello (D-Va.). But the NRCC is also testing the waters in some districts to see which ones present viable opportunities to knock off Democratic incumbents.
The committee’s decision to spend money against Rep. Mike McIntyre (D) in North Carolina’s 7th district was unexpected. Democrats say the NRCC is wasting its time, but strategists won’t make a determination about whether to put more money into the race until they study polling taken in the wake of initial ad buys.
The NRCC has reserved $35 million across 55 districts so far this cycle, but some Republican insiders say they wouldn’t be surprised if as many as 10 races are added to that list by the middle of next month.
“The more the NRCC explores races and opportunities, the more Democratic Members will be ringing the DCCC’s phone off the hook for air cover,” GOP strategist Ron Bonjean said Monday.
But one Democratic strategist said some of the NRCC’s spending so far seems to be little more than head fakes and smoke signals.
“They have a bigger fishing expedition. ... You always do when you don’t have the majority,” the strategist said. “They are going to spend some money that will be wasted and then they’ll whittle down the board.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had a $39 million to $25.6 million cash-on-hand advantage over the NRCC as of Aug. 31. Both parties are expected to take out loans and lines of credits to boost their late spending.
While Democrats are counting on their financial advantage to make the difference in some races, Republicans know they don’t need to spend as much to win the majority as Democrats need to save it because the national environment is so favorable for the GOP.
Republicans have made no secret of the fact that they hope to close the financial gap on the House side with the help of third-party groups. The NRCC and conservative groups such as American Crossroads and Americans for Job Security aren’t legally allowed to coordinate their efforts and strategy. But Democrats wonder whether the NRCC’s early spending has been a way to signal to those groups where it could use help.
That could be the case in New Jersey’s 3rd district, where the NRCC laid down just $95,000 for cable buys against Rep. John Adler (D). Adler’s district straddles the incredibly expensive New York and Philadelphia media markets. Republicans could also benefit from outside help in their efforts to defend Illinois’ 10th district, which lies in the expensive Chicago media market. The NRCC has spent just $149,000 on ads in the open-seat race so far.
As the NRCC has employed its resources trying to expand the map, the DCCC has held its fire. Democrats plan to wait until the last minute to deploy their resources in the hopes of overwhelming Republicans at a time when voters will be paying the most attention.
That strategy has left targeted Democratic candidates mostly on their own to get through September.
While committee officials have said they expect to spend $48 million in 60 races by Election Day, the DCCC reported spending a total of just $1.5 million through its IE in 13 districts as of Saturday.
One Republican media consultant said the DCCC’s decision to hold its fire in September has been surprising and represents a tacit acknowledgement that the top targeted races of the cycle are already lost.
The strategist said the DCCC appears to have already given up on retaining the majority and is trying to hold its losses at about 45 seats.
“They are playing in so few places at such a critical stage in the race that it’s beginning to look like their goal is to find a select number of seats and to just overwhelm them with money in the last few weeks to prevent this from being an abject disaster,” the consultant said.
The media consultant acknowledged that in some races, the DCCC will have more money to spend during the final three weeks of the campaign than the NRCC and conservative third-party groups combined.
But “in many of those places the ‘votes 95 percent with Nancy Pelosi’ [label] will already be tattooed on the heads of the Democratic incumbents. Will more money matter?” the consultant said.
DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider dismissed that reading of the committee’s IE strategy.
“In Republicans’ rush to pop the Champagne corks, they forgot a critically important thing: Not a single ballot had been cast. Democrats are running an aggressive campaign to win the House, and we will succeed,” Crider said.
The toughest part of the next phase of the IE game for the DCCC will be making the decisions about which campaigns to cut off financially. It’s a process the DCCC started in September as several campaigns in places such as Arizona, Indiana and Pennsylvania saw reductions in the original ad reservations the committee laid down in July.
Republicans will surely pounce on the first incumbent victim of a complete DCCC financial pullout. But committee officials also say they’d be happy to see the reservation reduction process continue for a few more weeks.
“If they want to siphon off airtime and money on a weekly basis, it will quickly become a nightmare scenario for their incumbents,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said. “At some point, this will become a slow-bleed strategy for them that will generate local media stories questioning whether or not the national party has left you for dead.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., walks on Broadway after a Future Forum with young entrepreneurs in the Flatiron District of New York City, April 16, 2015. Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., also attended.