Feb. 12, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

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 Congressional incumbents seeking re-election, the most vicious part of every cycle awaits: triage.

In the coming weeks, the national party committees will decide which races are deemed winnable and merit their resources - resources Members themselves donated and helped raise - and which should be abandoned.

"There's a lot of yelling and screaming going on," recalled Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), who oversaw a brutal cycle for House Republicans as National Republican Congressional Committee chairman in 2008. "The judgements that are called for? It's political life and death for some people."

Party officials are already moving money between races.

Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee shifted a week's worth of airtime from Rep. Larry Kissell's (D-N.C.) uphill re-election bid to target Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.). House Democrats did not cut off Kissell completely, but the move signals that the DCCC believes its funds are better spent on other races.

There's more of that to come in October, and it won't be pretty.

The DCCC reserved $61.7 million in airtime across 41 districts through Election Day. The NRCC reserved less airtime, $43.8 million, and is currently on the air in 35 districts.

Those reservations will shift frequently between districts as parties cross non-competitive or hopeless races off their lists.  

Currently, committee staffs are poring over data daily, including polling, finance reports and media buys, to determine the state of every race in lengthy "around the world" meetings.

"The overriding question is, 'Can we win?'" said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman in 2008 and 2010. "You have to allocate resources to maximize the number of seats you win - and that does require some tough decisions."

Often the Members at risk hail from the most expensive media markets: Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Sacramento, Calif. The committees might initially invest in such contests. But if the race cannot be salvaged, the committee pulls the plug. Other Members, such as Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (Md.) whose district falls within the expensive Washington, D.C., market, might never see an independent expenditure on their behalf simply because the race is presumed out of reach.

Already, speculation is swirling over which Members are on the chopping block, although committee officials usually keep such information quiet.  

"A lot of these candidates are competing with each other in this sense," said Brian Smoot, a veteran of the DCCC in the 2008 cycle. "You don't have unlimited money."

Fortunately for the committees, this cycle's triage will be less bloody than the past three wave cycles, when party officials cut off races by the dozen to staunch their losses.

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