The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats sound alarms about funding in battle for House majority

“There are places that I don’t know if we are going to be able to get to,” said Tim Persico, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee

Storm clouds are seen over the U.S. Capitol dome on July 12. (Tom Brenner for The Washington Post)

Top Democratic strategists have concluded that they lack the funds needed to fully contest all of their potentially winnable House races this cycle, people familiar with the situation said, forcing tough decisions about where to spend on television ads as Republican outside groups flood the airwaves.

The relative shortfall in outside spending is likely to leave some Democratic incumbents in contested races at sharp advertising disadvantages, while restricting the party’s ability to compete in open seats or to unseat Republican incumbents, these people said.

“There are places that I don’t know if we are going to be able to get to,” said Tim Persico, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It’s just money. They have billionaires and corporations stepping up with big checks and we just don’t have the same type of support. We are just getting outspent everywhere, so it is just a question of how much can we withstand.”

Democrats pointed to a TV ad spending advantage by Republican outside groups, which have the flexibility to move money around the House landscape strategically in the final weeks. That edge has become more alarming as a recent shift in the national mood has put more seats in contention for Democrats, who find themselves hamstrung by the Republican advantage in donors on the GOP side.

Another House Democratic strategist said the inability to fully fund key races could prove to be the difference between winning and losing control of Congress, or between keeping Republicans to a five-seat majority and a 15-seat majority. “I don’t think it is hyperbole to say at this point that money is going to make the difference,” said this person, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely about strategy.

Democrats are not favored by nonpartisan analysts to hold the House this cycle, because of the narrow majority they now enjoy and the historical head winds that the president’s party typically faces in his first midterm elections. But some Democrats feel their chances of winning have risen in recent months, given a summer spike in Democratic enthusiasm after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the ruling establishing a constitutional right to abortion and a recent uptick in President Biden’s approval rating.

It is not uncommon for party strategists to raise concerns about money in the final stages of campaigns, with some seeing such bluntness as a way to persuade donors who have stood on the sidelines to open up their wallets. With less than five weeks to go, Democrats see a competitive landscape where every dollar could matter.

Internal Democratic polling shows all of the party’s incumbents leading or trailing within the margin of error, according to Persico. “We don’t have anybody who is dead at this point,” he said Wednesday.

But Democratic strategists have also struggled all year to calibrate how much faith to put in their internal numbers, which failed to detect Republican gains in the 2020 elections. Democrats thought they could not lose more than three seats in a worst-case scenario in that cycle, according to one person involved. They lost 13, even as Biden beat Donald Trump by 7 million votes nationwide.

David Wasserman, a political handicapper at the Cook Political Report, estimated Thursday that after the decennial redistricting process, Republicans are favored to win 211 seats, while Democrats are favored to win 194 seats. That means Democrats would need to win 24 of the remaining 30 seats to retain control of the House.

Republicans, meanwhile, have tried to make up for a relative shortfall in candidate fundraising by using outside money, often from seven- or eight-figure contributions, to reshape where the fight is happening. Democrats, who depend much more on direct, smaller-dollar fundraising by their candidates, lack the same freedom to move money across the map.

“A key plank of our strategy this cycle has been to expand the map to as many competitive districts as possible. The net effect of that is that it forces the other side to make very difficult choices about who to fund and where their firewall is,” said Dan Conston, the president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the largest House Republican super PAC.

Democratic and Republican campaigns and outside groups purchased or reserved ad buys for similar amounts on broadcast television and cable from mid-August through Election Day, with Democrats putting up $330 million and Republicans putting up $316 million, according to AdImpact, a firm that tracks political advertising.

But $124 million of Democratic spending is being done by candidates, who spend their money where it is raised, meaning the ad buying is not always as strategic as national Democrats would like, compared with just $56 million by Republican candidates.

The advantage is flipped for outside groups, where Republicans have been able to direct a sizable surplus to the pivotal races they have decided to target. Republican outside groups are spending $249 million on ads, compared to $202 million for Democratic outside groups, according to AdImpact. Other spending is coordinated between campaigns and political committees.

The outside group advantage results primarily from Republicans having more ultrarich donors. Contributions of $1 million or more, from groups or major individual donors, account for $48.2 million, or about 49 percent of the fundraising for House Majority PAC, the Democrats’ principal outside group for House races, through the end of August. By contrast, contributions of $1 million or more account for $152 million, or about 80 percent, of CLF’s revenue through Sept. 12, according to Federal Election Commission records.

As a result, some long-held Democratic seats are no longer being contested by national Democratic groups at comparable levels to Republican groups, sometimes because new district lines were drawn, including multiple seats in Florida now held by Democrats and the seat held by Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.).

Retirements have also been an issue for Democrats. Based on current planned advertising investments, Democrats are not contesting parts of a district that overlaps areas previously represented by Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), who lost a primary this year for another nearby seat. Democrats are also projected to be dramatically outspent in the seats held by retiring Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) and Ron Kind (D-Wis.), two places where Republicans predict pickups.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has made the Republican candidate in Kind’s district, Derrick Van Orden, a top priority, even though he attended the Jan. 6, 2021, protests outside the U.S. Capitol, which led to a pro-Trump mob storming the building. An HMP purchase for an ad targeting Van Orden that is scheduled to run for the last two weeks of the campaign, after multiple weeks off the air, could still be pulled.

“He would probably lose a meaningful back and forth about his record and who he is,” Persico said.

In Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, where Democratic Rep. Jared Golden is seeking reelection, Republicans have reserved more than $3 million more in television ads than Democrats for the period between Labor Day and the end of the campaign, according to AdImpact. HMP has no reservations for two weeks in October in the district, compared to about $1 million in CLF spending planned for the same period.

“There has been a significant amount of donor enthusiasm behind taking back the House and ending Democratic Party rule, and I believe Democratic megadonors see the writing on the wall,” Conston said.

Democrats also worry they will not have funds to fully compete in some of the California seats occupied by Republicans, as well as the seat held by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), who lost her recent primary election to Joe Kent, a Republican who has denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election and denounced the legal treatment of Jan. 6 rioters as “banana republic stuff.”

“I think we can win that. It’s a little bit of a reach. I wish I had more money,” Persico said.

Isaac Stanley-Becker and Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

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