The Take: Democrats' ad spending reflects election anxieties

The Fix combed through the past 30 years of elections to find the campaigns that left winners and losers equally bruised.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010

So Robert Gibbs was right.

Remember the uproar the White House press secretary created when he said on national television that there were certainly enough seats in play for Republicans to take control of the House in November?

House Democratic leaders upbraided him and expressed their anger to the White House. Now the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has confirmed the accuracy of Gibbs's assessment by reserving tens of millions of dollars in television advertising time this fall in about five dozen congressional districts.

The Democrats might be speaking with bravado, but they're acting defensively. On Wednesday, Democratic National Committee Chairman Timothy M. Kaine offered his version of what a 2010 Republican Contract with America might look like.

It was a 10-point list culled in part from things some candidates with ties to the "tea party" movement have said. Kaine and the Democrats tried to portray that as GOP dogma and argued that the American people will reject Republican candidates in November.

Meanwhile, the DCCC's purchase of advertising time for the fall showed just how difficult Democrats expect the races to be. They will fight to hold the House, and they might well be successful: Republicans could squander this opportunity. But for Democrats, the battle is almost totally one of trying to build a levee high enough to hold off the worst of what they see coming.

Look at the list of the 60 districts where they have bought time. Republicans hold six of those seats. The other 54 are districts Democrats hold but know they could lose in November.

Many of the targeted districts are occupied by Democrats who won their seats in the 2006 and 2008 elections, and therefore are especially vulnerable to a shift in the political pendulum back toward the GOP. About two dozen of the targeted Democratic-held seats are in districts that Republican John McCain carried in the 2008 presidential election.

That means some inevitable losses among the classes of 2006 and 2008. But there are enough veteran Democrats on the list to suggest that this is no ordinary first midterm of a new presidency, when the party in the White House almost always loses some seats.

They include Reps. Ike Skelton of Missouri, Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, John Spratt of South Carolina and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota.

"Targeting 50-plus seats, the Democrats are telegraphing their clear intention to play defense this fall," said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. "And look at who they're spending money on. It's not just the usual freshman and sophomore suspects, but also longer-term members. They are signaling their fear that this is definitely not your run-of-the-mill midterm election."

Open seats generally provide the best opportunities for gains in House elections. Earlier in the election cycle, Democrats noted that there were more Republican retirees than Democratic retirees, implying that their own vulnerabilities were not all that significant.

The list of districts in which Democrats have bought time includes 11 with no incumbent running for reelection. But only one is in Republican hands. Democrats hold the other 10. Once again, that is a sign they are playing defense.

Part of the Democrats' strategy is to pick up a few GOP-held seats, which would mean Republicans would have to win more than the 39 seats held by the Democrats to take control.

A few are likely. For example, the Hawaii district that Republicans won in a special election this year will probably go back to the Democrats in November. The Chicago suburban seat held by Republican Mark Kirk, who is running for the Senate, has gone Democratic in the past three presidential elections. The Delaware seat held by Republican Mike Castle, who also is running for the Senate, is another clear pickup opportunity.

The districts where the DCCC has already committed money for television ads may not be all-encompassing in defining the battlefield for the fall. Nate Silver of notes that if you compare the forecasts of prominent independent handicappers -- Charlie Cook, Stu Rothenberg, Larry Sabato and Congressional Quarterly -- there are about 100 Democratic seats in some jeopardy.

A number of those 100 seats will probably not come into play this fall. But the idea that Gibbs overstated the problem for the Democrats is folly. They are doing everything they can to shift the focus, but what they're doing with their money speaks louder.

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