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Money From GOP Outside Groups Sparse in House Battles

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Outside groups are prohibited from coordinating with the party campaign committees, but they do spend their money based on the moves of the NRCC, led by Rep. Pete Sessions (above), and the DCCC, led by Rep. Steve Israel.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are quietly frustrated by the lack of outside group spending in House races, with less than a month to go before Election Day.

GOP-aligned super PACs have dominated the spending wars in the presidential and Senate races. They view the real political battle as the fight for the White House and the Senate majority, assuming Republicans have a lock on their 25-seat House majority.

Insiders in both parties and nonpartisan analysts believe the House is still not in play a month out, but the spending discrepancy could mean the difference in at least a handful of races.

“It does concern me that we’re going to be outspent in some places where maybe we shouldn’t be,” said a Republican consultant involved in House races. “There are places where we should be getting help, and we’re not.”

Few party operatives would speak publicly for this story for fear of angering the outside groups who could, at any point, reverse course and spend big. But the numbers tell the tale.

Karl Rove, a top adviser to the juggernaut GOP-aligned American Crossroads, reportedly told top donors in late August that the group planned to spend $32 million on House races. So far, the group, or its sister organization Crossroads GPS, has spent heavily in some special elections. But Crossroads GPS appears to have aired commercials in only two House races for the general election in the past six months, with combined buys totaling around a half-million dollars.

While Crossroads has reserved millions across the country in television time for presidential and Senate races, House operatives do not see any ad time from the group in their targeted races. 

A spokesman said the groups have together spent $1.5 million on House races since Jan. 1, 2012, and there is big spending yet to come. “Crossroads is looking to spend tens of millions through a variety of platforms — TV ads, phone calls, direct mail, research, polling — to protect the majority in the U.S. House and promote a conservative agenda,” spokesman Nate Hodson said in a statement. He noted that Rove isn’t a spokesman for the group.

Of course, what American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS spend may not represent their full House commitment, as transfers to other organizations could be used to help boost House Republicans.

American Action Network and Congressional Leadership Fund, two outside groups run by former House GOP aides, have spent significantly more. Spokesman Dan Conston said the groups have spent $2.8 million on television out of their $7.6 million in reservations already budgeted.

YG Action Fund, a super PAC founded by former aides to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), has spent about $6 million so far helping Republican House candidates, part of about $10 million in planned spending. Its sister organization, the Young Guns Network, has spent millions more on issue advocacy.

Meanwhile, Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC has spent more than $11 million on its own so far helping Democratic candidates and millions more in concert with the Service Employees International Union. House Majority PAC has at least $11 million left to spend, a spokesman said.

At the same time, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters have spent significant sums hammering Republicans in specific competitive House races.

“One of the big stories of this election in the House is that the Democratic outside groups have been more aggressive and spent more money on control of the House than business and Republican groups have,” top Republican strategist Brad Todd said.

Part of the trouble for Republicans and their allies is that outside dollars become less effective as each day passes. The competition in the top broadcast markets drives up the price to air advertisements — especially compared with TV time reserved early:

• In Sacramento, Calif., home to four competitive House races, outside groups pay about $1,100 per gross rating point — about $1 million to air a week of ads at saturation levels. In April, the cost was about $510 per point.

• In Las Vegas, outside groups pay about $600 per point. That’s twice the cost per point in April.

• On Boston’s Interconnect cable market, outside groups pay $1,800 per point to advertise in any of three nearby House races. Earlier this year, the cost was $700 per point.

• In smaller markets, such as Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Wausau, Wis., outside groups pay $125 to $165 per point. That’s three times the rate candidates receive.

Given the rising prices and the narrowing window before Election Day, Democrats are pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of third-party spending against them on the House front.

“They’re not overwhelming us in races that matter, that I can see,” said Steve Murphy, a Democratic media consultant. “I don’t think it’s as bad as it was originally conceived.”

Both Republican and Democratic outside groups engage in a careful ballet to put money in competitive races without overlapping with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee — all while not violating rules that prohibit coordinating with the committees.

“Before we buy, we look to see where the NRCC is, where other groups are, where the Democrats are,” one aide to a GOP outside group said. “We don’t want to throw money on top of money. You need to analyze the field and call the right offense or defense depending upon what the other players are doing.”

Democrats have been particularly pleased with how House Majority PAC, run by Alixandria Lapp, a former top staffer at the DCCC, has coordinated with the party committee and campaigns’ spending without actually coordinating.

“They’ve been a tremendous asset,” Democratic pollster Jef Pollock said. “And they’ve been on message in campaign after campaign.”

But despite Democrats’ apparent advantage in outside spending, a 25-seat gain does not appear within their reach. The fundamental playing field remains deeply disadvantageous to Democrats’ chances of taking back the House. No partisan wave has formed and, indeed, the broader landscape conditions are neutral: Democrats are likely poised to net only a handful of seats.

“The cement has been poured over the House battlefield,” Todd said.

Still, Democratic operatives argue that the wind is at their back.

“Democrats clearly have momentum and the House is in play,” DCCC Communications Director Jesse Ferguson wrote in a memo on Oct. 1.

But if there is wind — and that’s debatable — it is not currently at Democrats’ back at the speed they would need it to be to take back the majority. Still, there’s always the potential of some cataclysmic late-breaking event that swings the tide in Democrats’ favor.

But even that prospect doesn’t faze Republicans.

“I’d like to know what the last October surprise was that made a difference” in the House landscape, said influential Republican pollster Glen Bolger. “By this point in other major shift cycles like ’06 and ’10, everybody knew what was going to happen, it was just a question of what was the size. I think it’s a little late for that to be happening.”

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