As Elections Near, Dueling With Dollars

John Lapp decides what political ads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will run across the country as the party tries to retake control of the House of Representatives.
John Lapp decides what political ads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will run across the country as the party tries to retake control of the House of Representatives. (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee)
By Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 29, 2006

John Lapp, a 35-year-old Democratic strategist in charge of spending $60 million to defeat Republicans, had reason to feel aggressive. Internal party polls late last week showed 30 GOP House incumbents tied or behind. Armed with that information, Lapp approved a series of television ads attacking Rep. Jim Ryun, a Republican from a conservative corner of Kansas who suddenly looked a lot more vulnerable than before.

A few blocks away on Capitol Hill, Carl Forti, with a similar budget to protect the GOP majority, was playing defense. His own polls showed a growing number of House Republicans in serious trouble. Forti, 34, had little choice but to buy ads to protect suddenly at-risk Reps. Charles Bass (N.H.) and John R. "Randy" Kuhl Jr. (N.Y.).

Lapp and Forti make dozens of decisions like these every day, and the outcomes will only grow in importance during this final full week of the 2006 campaign. Betting right could well decide who controls the House after the Nov. 7 midterm elections, and by how many seats, according to strategists in both parties.

Forti and Lapp run the independent expenditure arms of their parties' campaign committees, the place where many of the negative ads that voters are seeing are financed, produced and strategically placed on television stations across the country. In the final days of the campaign, they will easily outspend the candidates themselves in many of the most competitive House races. They will decide the final images that many voters see in this campaign. Warning for the fainthearted: Most of the ads will be dark and accusatory.

One bad call could make or break a House race, officials in both parties said. There is no precise formula for determining the smartest choices. There are only polls, historical trends, anecdotal evidence and instinct, all of which can be flawed. Operatives in both parties described the process by which these decisions are made, in most cases on the condition that they not be quoted by name.

At the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, where Lapp works, officials are more confident than ever that they will gain a minimum of 18 seats, three more than they need for a majority, and possibly more than 40 if they catch a bunch of breaks in the remaining nine days. Expectations have evolved from simply winning a majority to setting the stage for a blowout.

The committee recently commissioned polls in almost 20 "bubble districts" that once looked difficult to win but now appear within reach. These include the open seat in Nevada's 2nd District and the one held by Rep. Gil Gutkneckt (R-Minn.). Lapp's team has polls showing Democrats close in all the races.

Over at the National Republican Congressional Committee, where Forti operates, officials said they see the situation as less bleak than they did a few weeks ago, immediately after the Mark Foley page scandal broke.

Based on polling, Republican strategists say a half-dozen seats, including open seats in Colorado, Arizona and Ohio, appear unwinnable. Six other races, including one for the seat held by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), are looking dire but not hopeless.

Most worrisome, GOP strategists say, is that 20 or more additional Republican incumbents are essentially tied or holding very small leads -- a danger zone for a sitting member of Congress in a tough political environment. This has left Forti and colleagues in survival mode.

A look at recent expenditures by the NRCC reveals the wide range of seats Forti must find a way to win. In a two-day period last week, the committee paid for polls in 14 races. Ten of those surveys were in districts of Republican incumbents, including previously safe seats such as that of Rep. Mark Edward Souder in Indiana.

It is Forti's job to decide whom the NRCC can save.

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