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GOP Tries to Capitalize on Expanding House Field

Despite months of preparations by the House campaign committees, the latest party spending — largely to fund TV ad buys — demonstrates the Congressional playing field remains relatively fluid three weeks before Election Day.

Party strategists are making the final spending decisions in an expanding midterm battleground, as both sides continue to refine their target lists and move ad money around at an expedited pace. Giddy Republicans are even talking about a field of competitive races that includes Democratic stalwarts like Reps. John Dingell (Mich.), James Oberstar (Minn.) and Maurice Hinchey (N.Y.), whose defeats would produce a Republican wave much larger than the 1994 epic.

Over the weekend, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s independent expenditure arm reported spending more than $8.2 million, the bulk of which went to fund TV commercials targeting Democrats in 29 districts. The committee is engaged in 56 districts and has spent more than a half-million dollars apiece in 11 races.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent about $12 million of the $52 million committee insiders have said will be spent by Election Day. Republicans have spent nearly $20 million of an estimated $45 million.

NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) said in an interview last week that the NRCC’s aggressive spending strategy in September and early October will negate Democrats’ late financial advantage.

“We’re going to get to Election Day and hope our momentum gets it done,” Sessions said. “We know they’ve got a strong air attack. ... We believe that we will have the momentum, with the enthusiasm that we see from the [poll] numbers that are coming out.”

The battle for freshman Rep. Mark Schauer’s Michigan district is set to become the first contest to top the $1 million mark in terms of committee IE spending; the NRCC hit $999,000 there this week.

Freshman Democratic Rep. Dina Titus’ race in Nevada could soon become the NRCC’s next million-dollar contest.

The committee has now spent almost $700,000 in the 3rd district, where ad rates have been increased because of hefty spending in the state’s high-profile Senate race.

After playing a game of chicken for most of September, the DCCC made its first big TV expenditures last week, burning through about $8 million. Although the DCCC is spending money in 48 races, the committee has yet to drop more than $626,000 in any one contest and has spent more than half a million dollars in just four races.

To put that in perspective, as of Oct. 13, 2006, there were 21 races where the parties had spent more than $1 million. At that point, Republicans had spent more than $1 million on 18 races as they were trying to protect their majority and hold back a surging Democratic tide. Democrats, who would go on to win the majority in the November elections, had spent more than $1 million on three races.

The decision by DCCC strategists to hold on to resources has left the DCCC with a larger bank account to employ in the final weeks of the cycle. However, outside groups could help Republicans fill the biggest gaps in the final weeks of the campaign.

With the ad wars engaged against most of the top-tier Democratic targets by now, Republicans are looking further down their lists as they try to figure out how far they can stretch the field by Nov. 2.

Included in the NRCC’s latest round of ad buys were spots targeting Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio) and Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.), neither of whom was thought to be particularly vulnerable at the beginning of the cycle.

In the coming weeks, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Republicans launch ads targeting Democratic Reps. Heath Shuler (N.C.), Lincoln Davis (Tenn.) and Ciro Rodriguez (Texas), who have all been on the periphery of the competitive election battlegrounds.

Republican insiders are talking about going even farther into Democratic territory that has not been considered genuinely in play. Possible targets include Democratic Reps. Ed Perlmutter (Colo.), Dave Loebsack (Iowa) and Gene Taylor (Miss.).

“The Republicans are throwing names out there. That doesn’t mean we have a race. It means Democrats aren’t going to take any chances,” Democratic media consultant Steve Murphy said. “There’s no panic.”

Over the weekend, reports surfaced that Hinchey and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) could be in trouble. That followed buzz late last week that Dingell, the dean of the House, could be in a “sleeper” race and in jeopardy.

In a wave election year, it would not be surprising if late-breaking races produced the defeat of longtime Democrats, like Dingell and Hinchey, who haven’t faced a tough re-election in years.

Among the other longtime Members facing increased speculation about their political footing is Oberstar, who has earned less than 60 percent of the vote just once since coming to Congress.

Fifteen-term Rep. Barney Frank’s fundraising letter to supporters last week noted that the Massachusetts Democrat’s opponent, “a virtual unknown in Massachusetts, has suddenly been heavily promoted by a national coalition of right-wing forces. ... We should not underestimate the power of a movement that is fueled by and is the servant of big money.”

But Murphy said Republicans aren’t being realistic if they think those races are competitive.

“I would encourage them to spend money on Congressman Oberstar and Barney Frank because they’re wasting their money,” Murphy said.

Democrats say Republicans’ spending in September included a lot of waste, as the GOP dropped small expenditures to try to soften up incumbents, not all of whom will end up being vulnerable.

Democrats point to races such as the one in California’s 11th district, represented by Rep. Jerry McNerney (D), where Republicans haven’t backed their media buys with enough money to make them effective.

“Going in once and having a schizophrenic approach is not an effective strategy,” DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said. “Republicans haven’t closed the deal in these districts; that’s why Democrats will win.”

The DCCC’s recent spending included more than $250,000 to boost freshman Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona’s 1st district, a seat that some prognosticators have already written off. At the same time, the DCCC moved to reduce its late-October media buys in about two dozen districts last week. More reductions are expected this week as the committees look to solidify their media plans for the final days of the campaign.

The DCCC has been slow to cut anyone off completely despite threats from committee brass in August that the DCCC would be ruthless in its spending decisions. The Rothenberg Political Report reported Monday that the DCCC has cut its media spending beyond this week for Rep. Steve Driehaus of Ohio. The move seems to be a first for the committee this cycle.

Republicans say the strategy to continue to keep ad reservations in hopeless races in September and early October may have helped the DCCC avoid some negative press but that it will cost them in the final weeks of the campaign.

“There will be races that will not get funded because they couldn’t cut off people who are already beat,” one GOP strategist said.

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