Playing Field Still Narrowing

Once-Touted Races Neglected

Posted September 29, 2004 at 6:42pm

The House playing field, already diminished by the decennial redistricting process, appears to be further shrinking as both parties consolidate their resources into a handful of districts where races are expected to go down to the wire.

Despite claims by both parties that they are trying to expand the size of the playing field, a look at the districts where the two House committees are funding independent-expenditure ads reveals that the number of races contested at this point is actually lower than it was in 2002.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is currently on television in nine districts nationwide, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has ads running in just six districts.

At this point during the 2002 cycle, the NRCC was on the air in 14 districts. While the DCCC was unable to provide a specific number of districts where the committee was running ads exactly two years ago, officials said the number was significantly larger, because they were having to defend more endangered incumbents rather than trying to pick off vulnerable Republicans.

The DCCC also recently scaled back the size of their original buys in 12 media markets, a decision that committee officials attribute to a desire to remain flexible in the campaign’s final month.

Democratic officials counter that the DCCC has recently expanded ad buys in Georgia’s 12th district, Kentucky’s 4th district and New York’s 27th district.

“It is wrong to look at any snapshot in time and think that represents the playing field,” said DCCC Communications Director Greg Speed.

House Republicans, however, draw the opposite conclusion. They point out that they have yet to reduce any of their pre-planned television buys.

“Two conclusions can be drawn from this: One, Democratic attempts to nationalize the election have failed or, two, they have a major money problem,” said NRCC Communication Director Carl Forti.

At the end of August, the NRCC had $26 million left in the bank, compared to $21 million for the DCCC.

In past cycles, the party committees paid for their advertising mostly with soft money, which could be raised in unlimited chunks. The passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002 banned them from raising or spending soft money.

A shrinking playing field benefits Republicans, since it forces Democrats to essentially run the table of competitive races to have any hope of winning back control. Republicans currently hold a 12-seat majority.

At the cycle’s onset, Democratic leaders pledged to expand the playing field to 40 or more seats, answering criticism that in previous elections they had left themselves little margin for error.

But, the 2001 redistricting process appears to be having an effect. Only a handful of incumbents on either side appear endangered.

Beyond Texas, where legislative Republicans redrew the state’s Congressional lines so that five Democratic incumbents are at risk, only Georgia Rep. Max Burns (R) appears to be in serious trouble at this point.

The DCCC went up with ads bashing Burns on Monday.

A big reason for the shrinkage of takeover opportunities is that several incumbents have solidified their standings since Labor Day.

Leading that list is Colorado Rep. Bob Beauprez (R), who has watched as his opponent, Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas (D), has become embroiled in a controversy surrounding the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999.

A recent grand jury report alleged that Thomas’ office had kept some facts of the case from the families of the young victims.

That blow was followed by the DCCC’s decision to pull two weeks of a scheduled month-long buy on behalf of Thomas.

Forti said the DCCC pullback had “obliterated” Thomas’ chances in the seat.

Hoping to put the race out of reach, the NRCC went on television Tuesday with ads that attack Thomas for his alleged support of the release from prison of an attorney who bilked mentally disabled people out of “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” according to the spot’s narrator.

Going into this cycle, Beauprez was among the most vulnerable House incumbents, having won his swing 7th district by just 121 votes in 2002.

Fellow freshman Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) has also strengthened his position considerably against former Flagstaff Mayor Paul Babbitt (D).

On the Democratic side, early Republican hopes to oust Rep. Dennis Moore (Kan.) appear to have diminished, as have challenges to Reps. Leonard Boswell (Iowa) and Tim Holden (Pa.).

Though Republican leaders have said they are targeting a handful of other incumbents — including Reps. David Wu (Ore.), Darlene Hooley (Ore.) and Earl Pomeroy (N.D.) — no ad time has been purchased by the NRCC in any of those districts.

As evidence of the pro-incumbent environment, five of the NRCC’s nine independent-expenditure ads are in open seats. Four of the DCCC’s six ads are running in open seats.

On this front, at least, House Democrats have an advantage. Of the 34 Members retiring at the end of the 108th Congress, 19 are Republicans and 15 are Democrats.

Among truly competitive open seats, Democrats have an even more clear-cut edge.

Four Democratic-held open seats are being targeted by both parties, while eight Republican-held open seats are hosting competitive campaigns.

Speed, the DCCC spokesman, added that a look at all the districts where either House party committee has reserved air time reveals that two-thirds of those seats are currently held by Republicans.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Speed said.

Unlike in cycles past, however, the DCCC reserved air time in early August — an unusually early date — in roughly 30 House districts. The committee believes that strategy is paying dividends, but Republicans deem it a strategic misstep.

The DCCC decided to block off time early in states that were also being targeted in the presidential race. The idea was to ensure that the party had the opportunity to play in a variety of districts if they so chose, and also to save money, Speed said.

The earlier ad buys are placed, the lower the cost per point television stations charge.

For example, when the DCCC bought time in Portland, Ore., they paid $214 per audience-rating “point.” This week, the cost is up to $395 a point.

Because they made such an early buy, DCCC officials insist that the July blueprint was never meant to be a final reckoning of the party’s eventual list of targeted races. In turn, the DCCC says, the decision to pull back in selected markets does not mean its abandoning those races.

But Republicans argue that the DCCC’s scaling back of time in various markets effectively cripples the Democratic campaigns in these districts.