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Triage Looms Over Campaigns

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel's (right) power will be apparent in the coming weeks as the campaign committee decides where to put resources a few weeks before Election Day.

For one, the field is smaller because redistricting diminished the number of competitive House districts. Secondly, third-party groups are spending in many of these contests already.

In recent cycles, if a committee cut off a candidate, the race was over. Not anymore.

This cycle, a committee might just be cueing a third-party group to step in.

Congressional campaigns, super PACs, and the committee's IE arm cannot by law coordinate with each other. But they signal to each other through their buys, which are public.

If a committee stops spending in a race ?- especially for a short period - it's often a signal to a third-party group that help is needed in that race.

The result is a relay race of resources, with committees and super PACs buying time in succession. Nonetheless, resources are still limited, and thus triage remains a difficult and sensitive practice.

"The individual decision might be more important this time because nobody has a wave behind them that can cover up mistakes," Cole said.

The DCCC started reserving ad time early this cycle to secure good rates ?- even though it's more obvious when it pulls out of a race. The NRCC reserved less airtime and later in the cycle, announcing districts to its buys each week.

But moving reservations at the eleventh hour is expensive. Ad rates can climb as much as 100 percent in competitive markets, especially in cities where the presidential campaigns are playing.

Third-party groups, including the campaign committees, can spend as much as $600 per point in the Las Vegas market today, according to a source who monitors the market. Candidates get a special rate of around $180 per point.

Last cycle, last-minute shifts caused chaos among the House Democratic Caucus. Starting in late September 2010, Democrats cut several candidates each week.

As the playing field expanded to more than a 100 races, Van Hollen answered angry calls from his colleagues bound for defeat.

"I think by the end of the cycle, everybody understood why we had to make tough decisions," Van Hollen said. "But certainly, at the time they were made, people were less than thrilled."

Specifically, Van Hollen made hard calls early in Ohio, moving airtime reservations out of races for then-Reps. Mary Jo Kilroy and Steve Driehaus and instead investing in competitive contests in New York and Kentucky.

The New York Times broadcast Kilroy's fate in a front-page story.  Driehaus lashed out with an online video blasting the DCCC for boosting Democrats who didn't vote for the health care overhaul law instead of him.

But Democratic Reps. Tim Bishop (N.Y) and Ben Chandler (Ky.) each won re-election by a few hundred votes.

For Republicans, the 2006 and 2008 cycles were just as cruel. In the final weeks, Cole recalled "fox hole" checks, peering into races to look for signs of life with polling results. When survey results showed Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) tied with his opponent in the 2nd district, Cole continued with his buy in the nearby Minneapolis market.

That cycle, a few Members who knew they would lose respectfully declined the committee's help. Many other Members were less gracious.

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