By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Top Democrats said yesterday that they are planning to significantly expand the number of GOP House seats they will target during the final 20 days of the campaign but that financial disputes and fundraising problems are hindering the effort.
Democrats said private polls have convinced top party officials that they could pick up 40 or more seats -- nearly double their internal projections from a week ago -- if they spend enough money on television advertising for long-shot races. Strategists James Carville and Stan Greenberg are among those pleading with party leaders to go deep into debt to run ads in as many as 50 GOP-held districts.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) has privately signed off on targeting a new group of GOP incumbents who were once considered safe for reelection, starting with Rep. Gil Gutknecht in rural Minnesota, officials said.
The number of seats Democrats could pick up "is expanding, no doubt about it," Emanuel said. "But you have to figure out what is smoke and what is fire."
Emanuel said he believes as many as 58 seats are now in play.
Still, several Democrats complained that the party is on the verge of blowing a once-in-a-decade political opportunity because of financial troubles.
The Democratic National Committee has no plans to help finance a last-minute push because it just took out a loan to spend up to $10 million more, primarily on Senate races, and particularly in Virginia and Tennessee, a top official said. "We are looking, but unfortunately there is not much more we can do," said DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney.
Harold Ickes -- a Democratic operative who recently created an independent political group called the September Fund with a goal of raising $10 million to $20 million for House and Senate campaigns -- said his group cannot afford to target races beyond those that Democrats have already identified as must-wins to capture control of the House for the first time since 1994.
"It has been more difficult raising money than I expected," said Ickes, noting that his group has raised between $5 million and $10 million, half its original goal. "My sense is there is more optimism than is probably warranted," he said about Democratic prospects.
If Ickes's statement is correct, most of his group's money has come in recent weeks. According to the latest Federal Election Commission filings, Ickes's group had raised slightly more than $1 million through Sept. 30.
Greenberg added: "I don't see the evidence the big donors are stepping up."
More broadly, Democrats are deeply divided over the smartest political strategy for profiting from a political environment that has deteriorated for Republicans in the aftermath of the Mark Foley page scandal.
Some Democratic officials and donors want their money concentrated to maximize the chances that the party captures the minimum number of seats necessary to gain majorities in the House and the Senate, rather than having resources spread too thin by spending on second-tier targets. The party needs to pick up 15 seats to win control of the House and six to take power in the Senate.
But Carville, Greenberg, Emanuel and others are now arguing in private deliberations that Democrats have a historic chance to not only win the House but also capture enough seats to build an effective governing majority. They are telling donors that it is worth the risk to shoot for a 40-plus seat gain, which would give Democrats a large enough majority to guarantee that they could move legislation and carry out investigations of the Bush administration.
"You would be crazy not to get your donors to do whatever they can and borrow what you need" to run ads in every competitive race, Greenberg said. Based on his polling, Greenberg is telling party leaders that it is not unrealistic to envision a 41-seat gain, which would give Democrats the same governing majority Republicans had after their 1994 takeover.
"I am saying this is a twice-in-a-lifetime environment," Carville said. "You try to maximize it."
Republicans have tacitly acknowledged that Democrats are right about the expanding field of competitive races. In recent days, for instance, national GOP organizations have pumped money into a race for an open seat in Idaho and into other races that were previously regarded by both parties as out of reach for Democrats.
This is not an easy bet for Democrats. It would be virtually impossible to expand the number of House seats with fully competitive races without taking some money away from efforts to win back the Senate.
Democrats said big donors such as George Soros, a billionaire financier who has funded liberal causes, are refusing to help Democrats offset the GOP's edge in spending by outside political groups. A top official who often speaks with Soros and other major benefactors said they remain upset by the Democratic failure to win the White House and Congress in 2004 and have turned their attention to long-term efforts to build a network of think tanks and advocacy organizations to support liberal causes. The richest donors also see presidential elections as more glamorous and worthy of high-level support, the official said.
A spokesman for Soros was out of the country and unreachable.
Bob J. Perry, a Texas realtor and staunch Republican, is on pace to single-handedly outspend many of the Democratic political groups such as Ickes's. Perry has given more than $7 million to efforts targeting nearly a dozen Democratic candidates, including several that are considered long-shot bets.
Bill Buck, a founder of Majority Action, an independent organization hoping to elect a Democratic House majority, said his group is investing $500,000 in New York's 19th district against Rep. Sue W. Kelly (R) -- a race that was hardly on anyone's radar screen at the start of the election campaign. Kelly is being challenged by John Hall, best known for writing the lyrics to the 1970s hit "Still the One." But Democratic officials said any effort to target a new group of GOP House members will have to be financed by the DCCC.
The DCCC is likely to go deep into debt, perhaps topping the $11 million deficit it racked up in 2004. The committee can borrow as much as a bank is willing to lend. The other option is to take money out of Republican districts that the party is confident it is almost certain to win.
This approach carries a big risk, however. If the party pulls ads in districts such as the Indiana base of Rep. Chris Chocola, who is trailing by double digits in private Democratic polling, it might allow an established GOP incumbent to creep back up in the race.
Chris Cillizza of washingtonpost.com contributed to this report.