Parties Launch Battle for Control of Congress

Posted September 3, 2010 at 6:19pm

In many ways, the traditional post-Labor Day start to the fall campaign has become an antiquated notion.

Entering the Labor Day weekend, about two dozen Republicans and nearly 50 Democrats in competitive House districts were already on the air with television ads. Third-party groups have already made their presence felt in several high-profile contests, and nationally coordinated voter contact programs have, in some districts, been in place for more than a year.

With two months to go before Election Day, the number of House seats in play has crept into the high 80s. But the dominant story line is set: Democrats are desperately trying to hold their losses below the 39 seats that would hand control of the House to Republicans.

But as Members return to the Capitol this week for the final legislative push before leaving town, they can look forward to the rituals associated with the post-Labor Day campaign season kickoff. Fundraising will be a top priority during the short time Members have left in D.C.

This week is certain to see the party campaign committees’ independent expenditure air war kick into high gear. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee started early last week, when it dropped its first TV ad of the cycle in Wisconsin’s 7th district, attacking Republican Sean Duffy for wanting to privatize Social Security.

The DCCC plans to spend $49 million in 60 districts this fall. But with a large portion of that money reserved for the final weeks of the campaign, race watchers will watch to see how the committee shifts those funds around over the next 60 days.

Democratic leaders have already warned their rank and file that they will be ruthless in allocating resources and that underachieving Members can expect no help.

“At the end of the day, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will look at races we can win,” Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) warned late last month.

That could be bad news for vulnerable Members such as freshman Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello, who, despite being well-regarded, has been unable to come within 20 points of his GOP opponent in polling.

The biggest issue facing House Republicans is whether they will have the resources to stay on offense in enough places to pick up 39 seats.

At the end of July, the DCCC had $17 million more in the bank than the National Republican Congressional Committee. Even though Republicans are confident they can close the gap, they will have to make tough decisions about where to target their resources.

New Jersey’s 3rd district and Pennsylvania’s 10th district are potential pickup opportunities where the NRCC has not reserved airtime. Some race watchers view the New Jersey seat as the better opportunity. But the NRCC’s dollars will go further against Democratic Rep. Christopher Carney in northeastern Pennsylvania than they will against Rep. John Adler (D-N.J.), whose district straddles the Philadelphia and New York media markets.

Still, Carney’s challenger, former District Attorney Tom Marino, showed just $11,000 in the bank at the end of June, which likely means the NRCC would have to make a significant investment to push the race into the most competitive category.

The NRCC has committed $22 million to 41 races, but party officials said they plan to spend as much as $50 million.

Supplementing the committees’ independent expenditure operations in the coming weeks will be untold millions from third-party organizations such as the 527 group American Crossroads, which was the brainchild of GOP strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie.

One Democratic fundraiser said Members are worried about those groups as they look to the final two months of the cycle.

While Democrats think the DCCC’s cash-on-hand advantage will limit GOP gains, “the unknown is the 527s,” the fundraiser said. “You’re never going to fill a hole if a 527 group is going to drop half a million or a million into your race.”

But while Republicans are happy to be on offense, they are also wary of traditional Democratic third-party powerhouses such as labor unions and trial lawyers.

“American Crossroads, Americans for Prosperity, those groups are so new and the Democratic groups are so established that I think they have the advantage in their third-party resources,” GOP strategist Chris Perkins said last week. “They have been in the field for years and are well-established.”

Republicans expect to be outspent, but said it will not matter on Election Day.

“A money advantage doesn’t matter as much in this kind of national electoral environment,” Republican consultant Brian Donahue said last week. “The Democrats’ disadvantage on the generic ballot negates their fundraising advantage. A money advantage matters much more when it’s localized races and localized battles. This election is a referendum on the current Democratic leadership.”

Democrats pointed out that the GOP’s reliance on nationalizing every race was their undoing in Pennsylvania’s 12th district special election earlier this year.

“In a district independent analysts said they should have easily won, the NRCC’s losing argument in PA-12 was to run a national message and bet the significant enthusiasm gap and their polling numbers would bring voters to the polls,” DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said last week. “House Republicans failed miserably because Democrats made the election a choice between two candidates and beat them on the ground. … Democrats will win on the ground, race by race.”

But NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said the lack of a coherent message, much less one that moves numbers among independent voters, will be Democrats’ undoing this fall.

“Grass-roots mobilization is an important aspect of campaigning, but the significant enthusiasm gap and terrain problem they face should not be underestimated as well,” he said.