By Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 13, 2006
Faced with a deteriorating political climate, Republican Party officials are hoping to keep control of the House and Senate with a strategy aimed at shoring up enough endangered incumbents to preserve their majorities, while scaling back planned spending on races that now appear unwinnable.
In recent days, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has given back television time it had reserved in Democratic-held districts in West Virginia, South Carolina and Ohio -- apparently concluding that those races are beyond reach unless something dramatic changes the national political environment in the 25 days before the Nov. 7 election.
The Republican National Committee, which is using its substantial resources to supplement the party's Senate campaign committee, has spent virtually all of its television money in just three states -- Ohio, Missouri and Tennessee -- hoping to build a levee strong enough to save those seats and the Senate majority.
Democrats, meanwhile, are juggling pleas for financial assistance from candidates in House districts once considered second-tier opportunities. The Democrats have ordered up polls in a dozen or more of these long-shot districts and now face a critical choice: whether to place bets on a few of these districts in the hope of expanding the field of competitive seats, or concentrate advertising dollars as planned on the roughly 20 to 25 districts where the odds appear most favorable.
Linda Stender has been pressing party officials to pour money into her uphill race against Rep. Mike Ferguson in New Jersey's 7th District, touting a new poll that shows her within striking distance. So far, those officials are balking.
"The challenge right now is for the DCCC to assess all the information as it is coming that show which races are competitive," Stender said. "If anything, what is toughest is there are so many seats that are competitive now."
Bill Burton, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said the party will look carefully before jumping in. "We're going to be polling, and we're going to look at the political dynamics and the strength of candidacies," he said. "No decisions have been made at this point."
Democrats need to gain 15 seats next month to recapture the House. Strategists believe the goal is now attainable, because of high disapproval ratings for both the Republican-controlled Congress and for President Bush, as well as public dissatisfaction over Iraq and the fallout from the Mark Foley page scandal.
Some top Republicans privately talk about losing a minimum of 12 seats, leaving them with a barely workable majority, and as many as 25 or 30 seats. Democratic strategists see the range of potential pickups in almost identical terms.
The two House campaign committees are pouring most of their money into independent expenditure ads -- most of them negative -- on behalf of their candidates. As of early this week, Democrats had spent or reserved about $49 million in advertising time; the Republicans had spent or reserved $56 million to $60 million. In some races, there may be no more television time to buy.
A summary of advertising dollars spent to date by the candidates, the national party committees and major outside groups, produced by a media firm called TNSMI/CMAG and obtained by The Washington Post, shows that the bulk of television money has gone into 35 House districts.
Among those where spending is heaviest are three races in Indiana, where Republican incumbents are running scared. More than $4 million had been spent there as of the beginning of the week. Other races where money has flowed freely include two districts in Connecticut -- another state where Republicans are on the defensive -- and districts in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, New Mexico, New York and Virginia.
"We're seeing relatively safe House districts with candidates up on the air five weeks out," said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNSMI/CMAG. "They would have been on two to three weeks out at the earliest in past elections. . . . No one is safe."
The two committees are closely tracking spending patterns, and at this point in the campaign there is a certain amount of gamesmanship in their public explanations of what the other side is up to.
Democrats noted gleefully that Republicans had spent money on a poll in Indiana's 3rd District, where incumbent Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R) won reelection with 69 percent of the vote in 2004 and Bush carried with 68 percent of the vote. Souder has not been on anyone's endangered list.
NRCC spokesman Carl Forti said the committee polled the district out of precaution because Souder's opponent had invested several hundred thousand dollars in advertising. Forti said the poll showed Souder in no danger.
NRCC officials noted that Democrats scaled back ad buys in Phoenix and Denver and said that meant the opposition is giving up on two House incumbents. Not so, say Democrats, who say the Republicans are misreading their movements.
This jousting will continue into the final days, but what is clear at this point is that Democrats are playing very little defense in the House and the Senate. They are spending money on a small number of seats held by Democrats, most notably Rep. Leonard L. Boswell in Iowa and Melissa L. Bean in Illinois. In the Senate, Democrats worry most about Robert Menendez of New Jersey, whose seat they can ill afford to lose.
Even Republicans in districts dominated by conservative voters are picking up high levels of unease. Colorado's 5th District, for instance, has never elected a Democrat since it was created 34 years ago. But retiring Rep. Joel Hefley (R) has refused to endorse the party's nominee, Doug Lamborn, charging him with having run a "sleazy" campaign, and a new poll by the Denver Post found him tied with Democrat Jay Fawcett with a quarter of the electorate undecided.
Republican officials said the race is not that close but acknowledged that the political environment is more difficult than expected. "Everyone in the country is seeing some disenchantment with Republicans," said Lamborn campaign manager Jon Hotaling.
The DCCC sent word to Fawcett on Wednesday that they will now invest modestly in his race. "It has been a pointed discussion all along about whether we were reading things right out here," Fawcett said. "We thought something was going on. Slowly but surely we have banged away at it, and finally Washington is noticing."
Republicans seem more concerned about one of their Colorado incumbents, Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, who appears potentially vulnerable. She required a last-minute lift from GOP officials in Washington in 2004. The NRCC is coming to her aid again against state Rep. Angie Paccione; Democrats this week scaled back plans for advertising in the district, suggesting that Musgrave's standing might be improving.
Republicans are also increasingly nervous about the seat held by Rep. David G. Reichert (R-Wash.). Darcy Burner, a former Microsoft executive, has pounded Reichert for voting with the GOP majority in Washington, hoping to capitalize on widespread frustration there. In a sign of nervousness, the NRCC recently increased its spending on television ads in the district.
Burner wants help from the DCCC. "Anytime you spend millions of dollars communicating with voters, it is going to have an impact," Burner said.
But some races require more money than others to have the same impact. In New Jersey, Stender might fall victim to the cost-benefit analysis of betting on House seats in the very expensive New York media market. With limited funds, the DCCC is likely to roll the dice on seats where television ads are cheap.