By Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 9, 2010; 12:17 AM
The Republican Party and its allies are using a clear financial advantage to pursue a rare opportunity this year, spreading resources across an unusually large number of races, including many considered safe for Democrats just weeks ago.
The conservative push further endangers Democratic control of the House and Senate in a political environment already highly favorable for the GOP.
Rather than pursuing the usual political strategy of focusing on close races, Republicans and conservative groups have spent money on longshots as well - testing to see whether a nudge can make a sleepy race competitive.
The GOP strategy, enabled by millions of dollars raised and distributed by interest groups, has opened up contests weeks before the Nov. 2 midterm elections and forced the Democrats to ratchet up their defensive spending in many districts.
Republican Party committees and conservative groups have spent $100,000 or more in 77 different House races across the country. By comparison, the Democratic Party and its supporters have spent that much in 43 House races, according to a Washington Post analysis.
The advantage allowed Republicans to take to the airwaves sooner in an attempt to define Democratic candidates; it also means they have spent heavily in nearly twice as many districts as they would need to win control of the chamber.
The pattern is similar in the Senate. The GOP and its allies have spent $1 million or more in 12 separate races; Democrats have spent that much in six.
The GOP's monetary advantage signals a remarkable turnabout from earlier this year, when the political fund balances appeared to favor Democrats strongly. The governing party has received relatively meager help from unions and other sympathetic interest groups, forcing it to be frugal in choosing which races to fund.
Democrats are spending on Senate contests in liberal strongholds such as Washington state, Connecticut and Delaware, even though Democratic candidates there are polling ahead of their opponents. The strategy leaves less cash to fund candidates facing strong Republican challengers in swing states.
In Connecticut, Democrats have spent $500,000 in support of Richard Blumenthal, a Senate candidate once considered unbeatable.
In the West Virginia Senate race, Democrats have put in nearly $1 million in support of popular Gov. Joe Manchin III (D), nearly matching the $1.3 million recently spent by Republicans backing businessman John Raese. Recent polls there have shown the race tied or with Raese ahead.
Despite the GOP advantage, Democratic incumbents who've been fundraising for the past two years gave themselves a head start.
In House races, Democrats have a $7 million edge in total spending on television ads - by candidates, outside groups and parties - in the past 60 days, according to Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks ad spending.
Self-funding Republican candidates such as Linda McMahon in Connecticut and Carly Fiorina in California have helped tip the scales toward the GOP in Senate contests. There, Republicans lead in overall television advertising by $20 million in the past 60 days.
Democrats are concerned about the rush of outside spending in the final months of the race, and are using it as part of their message for voters this fall.
"Right before our eyes, we're seeing a blatant attempt by the right-wing shadowy interest groups to buy a Congress that will cater to their special interests, to the exclusion of everyone else," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which funds House races.
One exception to the national trend is Kentucky. The Republican Party bought ads boosting Senate candidate Rand Paul before spending anywhere else, even though the Bluegrass State favored GOP presidential candidate John McCain by 16 points in 2008.
In the House, the Rust Belt states hit hard by the economic recession are a top battleground. Five states - Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania - account for $20 million in spending in the general election, or a third of all spending by parties and outside groups in the House. The Mountain West is another classic battleground getting attention from both parties.
Spending is most lopsided in the South, where conservatives have put renewed focus on taking out the few remaining Democratic veterans, including some with strong records of popularity who happen to hail from conservative-leaning districts. In the general-election campaign, Democrats and their allies have spent $2.8 million in the region, compared with $9.3 million from Republicans and their supporters.
One example is Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who has represented his right-leaning district in Appalachia since 1983. He faces a strong challenge from state Del. Morgan Griffith (R).
The National Republican Campaign Committee and a conservative group, Americans for Job Security, have blanketed the rural district with $800,000 worth of anti-Boucher ads. The ads attack his support for climate-change and stimulus legislation and link him to President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
"Boucher voted with Nancy Pelosi and against us," said one ad aired by Americans for Job Security, which is based in Alexandria and is not required to disclose its donors. "Boucher Bailouts: Big government, bad decisions," said another spot from the NRCC.
Griffith spokesman Marty Gordon said the blizzard of advertising has helped put the race on the political map. "This is the first time in 28 years that he's had some real competition," Gordon said. "We welcome the support."
But Boucher remained ahead in recent polls, and said in an interview that the advertising will have little impact in a district where he is well-known for his attention to local issues. "The basic tenor of the ads is that I'm the same as Pelosi and the same as the president, neither of whom is very popular in the district," he said. "But people here know that's not true."
Other Southern Democrats getting pummeled on the airwaves include Reps. Ben Chandler (Ky.) and John Spratt (S.C.), chairman of the House Budget Committee.
In Florida, Rep. Kendrick Meek (D), a candidate for the open Senate seat, has been left out in the cold in the expensive state, with next to nothing spent on his behalf and $3 million coming from conservative groups boosting Republican Marco Rubio.
The races of some Democrats have effectively been declared over. In Colorado, political parties and outside groups have spent no money in the race between Rep. Betsy Markey (D) and Republican Cory Gardner, who held a commanding lead in recent polls. Senate races in Arkansas, Indiana and Ohio have attracted little outside money because the Republican candidate is well ahead.
With outside groups going on the air in favor of many Republicans, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has had more flexibility in choosing which races to fund early.
The committee has already committed $3 million in an attempt to knock out Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Republican Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO, is spending an undisclosed amount of her own money on the race.
"The landscape has allowed us to use our money for more offensive purposes," said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the Republican Senate committee. "The Democrats have had to cut a bunch of their candidates loose."