The Washington Post

House Democrats buy fall television advertising

DCCC chairman Steve Israel, D-N.Y., is putting his chips in the pot (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved more than $43 million in television advertisements in key battleground districts over the final two month sprint before the midterm elections.

Democrats have bought airtime in 36 House districts across the country, indicating the districts the party believes are winnable. Seventeen of those districts are held by Republicans, while 19 are held by Democrats.

Those numbers demonstrate Democrats are in better position than the last midterm election in 2010, when the DCCC played defense in 39 Democratic-held seats and advertised in just one Republican-held seat. But they also underscore the long odds Democrats face in returning to the majority; if Democrats held all 199 House seats they currently own and gained every one of the 17 Republican-held seats, the party would still be two seats short of a majority.

(Related: Election Lab: 2014 Midterm Elections Forecast)

Notably absent from the DCCC's view of the House battlefield: Several seats held by retiring Democrats in heavily Republican districts in Utah and North Carolina. Democrats never seriously considered competing for seats being vacated by Reps. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) and Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), making their climb to the majority all the more difficult.

Reserving television advertising early ensures the party will have access to airwaves even as candidates flood the market with their own advertising, and TV time becomes scarce. A DCCC aide estimated the committee would save between 25 percent and 35 percent on television spots by reserving early; as the market becomes more competitive, the costs of those spots rise.

Democrats have reserved $18.6 million in airtime in the 17 Republican-held districts. The DCCC has asked television stations to set aside time in Arkansas' 2nd District, where Rep. Tim Griffin (R) is retiring; in California's 10th and 21st Districts, where Reps. Jeff Denham (R) and David Valadao (R) are seeking reelection and the 31st District, where Rep. Gary Miller (R) is retiring; and in Colorado's 6th District, where Rep. Mike Coffman (R) is one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country.

The committee has reserved time in Florida's 2nd District, where Rep. Steve Southerland (R) is running for a third term; in Iowa's 3rd District, where Rep. Tom Latham (R) is retiring, and the 4th District, where Rep. Steve King (R) is seeking re-election; in Illinois' 13th District, where Rep. Rodney Davis (R) is running for reelection; in Michigan's 1st, 7th and 11th Districts, where Reps. Dan Benishek (R), Tim Walberg (R) and Kerry Bentivolio (R) are running for reelection, and in the 8th District, where Rep. Mike Rogers (R) is retiring.

Democrats have also reserved time in New Jersey's 3rd District, where Rep. Jon Runyan (R) is retiring; New York's 11th and 23rd Districts, where Reps. Michael Grimm (R) and Tom Reed (R) are running for reelection; Pennsylvania's 6th District, which Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) is vacating, and the 8th District, where Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R) is seeking a third term; and in Virginia's 10th District, where Rep. Frank Wolf (R) is calling it quits after a long career. The party has reserved $2.8 million in broadcast and cable television ads in the Washington, D.C. media market, which covers Wolf's district, more money than in any other single seat.

The DCCC has reserved the remaining $24.9 million for advertising aimed at protecting their own incumbents or open seats they control. The party has bought ad time in Arizona's 1st, 2nd and 9th Districts, held by Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D), Ron Barber (D) and Kyrsten Sinema (D); California's 7th, 26th and 52nd Districts, held by Reps. Ami Bera (D), Julia Brownley (D) and Scott Peters (D); Connecticut's 5th District, where Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D) is running for another term; Florida's 26th District, where Rep. Joe Garcia (D) is a top GOP target; and Georgia's 12th District, where Rep. John Barrow (D) is perpetually vulnerable.

The DCCC made airtime reservations in Illinois' 10th and 12th Districts, where Reps. Brad Schneider (D) and Bill Enyart (D) are seeking second terms; Massachusetts' 6th District, where Rep. John Tierney (D) remains vulnerable; Minnesota's 7th and 8th Districts, where Reps. Collin Peterson (D) and Rick Nolan (D) face tough reelection fights; New Hampshire's 1st and 2nd Districts, where Reps. Carol Shea Porter (D) and Ann McLane Kuster (D) are seeking reelection; New York's 1st District, where Rep. Tim Bishop (D) is running for re-election, and the 21st District, where Rep. Bill Owens (D) is retiring.

Democrats have also bought airtime in Texas's 23rd District, where Rep. Pete Gallego wants a second term, and in West Virginia's 3rd District, where Rep. Nick Rahall (D) is seeking another term. The DCCC has locked down more than $1.2 million on Rahall's behalf; Rahall had contemplated retiring at the beginning of the cycle, though CNN reported he reconsidered after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi promised him campaign help.

Party committees don't have to actually pay for the ads until just before they are scheduled to run, meaning the DCCC can -- and probably will -- cancel some of their planned ad buys before they air. If a race is no longer competitive just weeks before Election Day, party committees routinely turn off the cash spigot to redirect scarce resources elsewhere.

In states like Iowa, the early ad reservations can be a head fake, or at least an optimistic guess at the party's fortunes that can be easily reversed when the time comes. If national political fortunes flip and Democrats find the wind at their backs, they might use the $440,000 they have reserved on Des Moines broadcast television to attack King, the conservative firebrand. But if King appears safe, Democrats can simply use that time to run ads for their candidate in the neighboring 3rd District, one of the most competitive seats in the country.

Similarly, the early ad reservations suggest Democrats are reaching to put seats held by four Michigan Republicans -- Reps. Dan Benishek, Tim Walberg, Mike Rogers and Kerry Bentivolio -- into play. Though all four seats could be competitive, Democrats are buying advertising early to lock in low rates in a state where outside groups will spend millions on competitive contests for governor and Senate.

The early reservations also represent a firewall of sorts. Democrats have reserved time to defend Bishop's Long Island seat and Esty's central Connecticut district, two seats that have voted routinely for Democratic candidates. If those seats flip to the GOP this year, Democrats are likely to have a rocky Election Night.

Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.

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