Big Gulf Between Parties on Spending Strategies

by Stuart Rothenberg October 30, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

Election Day is still five days off, but already Republican strategists are whispering that they outmaneuvered their Democratic counterparts.

The National Republican Congressional Committee and certain other GOP-allied groups adopted a reasonable but risky strategy, which proved effective. Those strategists decided to spend their limited financial resources early and in some not-so-obvious cheap media markets, hoping to put more seats into play and generate momentum for the cycle.

They hoped that buzz about increased GOP opportunities would create more fundraising opportunities, and they bet that increased opportunities would encourage a more aggressive approach by “outside” Republican-leaning groups, some of which seemed more focused on Senate races.

They have won their bet.

On Oct. 5, Roll Call published a chart showing that through Oct. 2, the NRCC had spent $11.3 million through its independent expenditure on the general election campaigns, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had spent only a little more than $4.1 million through its IE.

At that point, the NRCC had spent more than $300,000 on 16 races, while the DCCC spent that much on just five. The NRCC had spent at least $200,000 in 27 districts, while the DCCC had invested at least $200,000 on just eight races.

Not surprisingly, as of Sept. 30, the NRCC had $19 million in the bank, while the DCCC had $41.6 million on hand.

Obviously, the GOP’s early advertising strategy showed up in individual races.

On Aug. 9, an outside, pro-GOP group, Americans for Prosperity, ran a stunning 1,200 points against Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), who was not regarded then as among Republicans’ top 40 targets. The NRCC hit the airwaves on Sept. 6, and the 60 Plus Association went up with TV ads a few days later.

In Kentucky’s 6th district, challenger Andy Barr went on the air in August, while the NRCC went up with an ad Sept. 12. Rep. Ben Chandler (D) didn’t seem at all vulnerable at that point, but the NRCC gambled that it could make the contest competitive and force the DCCC to spend on the race.

Early NRCC buys against Democratic Reps. Mike McIntyre in North Carolina’s 7th district (beginning Sept. 17), Ike Skelton in Missouri’s 4th district (on Sept. 24), Rick Boucher in Virginia’s 9th district (on Sept. 17), Jim Marshall in Georgia’s 8th district (Sept. 24) and Kathy Dahlkemper in Pennsylvania’s 3rd district (Sept. 17) also sought to soften up incumbents in relatively inexpensive media markets.

Republicans proudly point to their commitment to the Skelton district. They concede that two weeks of TV ads in the district didn’t do much to move the veteran Democrat’s numbers, but note with pride that subsequent ads caused Skelton’s poll numbers to “fall like a rock.”

Republican strategists argue that Democratic incumbents should have annihilated GOP challengers early, taking the contests “off the table” and limiting the size of the Congressional playing field.

“When you have a bad environment, waiting does not preserve your options. It just forces you into unacceptable and more expensive choices later,” said GOP consultant Brad Todd, who is part of the NRCC’s IE team. “Money advantages are almost best leveraged by stretching out the calendar, not by hoping it gets shorter.”

“The best way for [Democrats] to handle this cycle was to pressure our resources on the top tier early and kill even a few of our second-tier guys in the cradle. For whatever reason, most of their tier-three incumbents, who should have been able to win on their own, didn’t pull out their knives until very late,” he said.

Democrats did take some races off the table by spending heavily — in Ohio’s 13th (Rep. Betty Sutton) and Iowa’s 3rd (Rep. Leonard Boswell) — but they didn’t do it in enough districts. By not spending in certain districts, Democratic strategists freed the NRCC to look around for other districts in which to play, Republican strategists said.

Not surprisingly, Democrats see things very differently.

They counter that cash-rich Democratic incumbents didn’t need the DCCC’s help early in the cycle, and that it made sense for the DCCC to save its resources for the final month of the campaign, when “voters are paying attention.”

“We didn’t hold back on money. We went early in open seats (such as Michigan’s 1st and Wisconsin’s 7th) where our nominees didn’t have the cash advantage,” DCCC Executive Director Jon Vogel said.

“Many of our candidates were already up on the air [in August and September]. We had more [gross ratings] points up. It was the Republicans [and the NRCC] who were playing catch-up,” another Democratic strategist added.

The Democratic strategy was to let Democratic incumbents battle it out on TV with the NRCC and GOP challengers early, then have the DCCC jump into competitive races and give Democrats the crucial advantage down the stretch.

“The DCCC’s discipline has been important. It’s rare you get a knockout punch in September. Our candidates left on the table late — those in 46-44 [percent] races — need a strong endgame TV play [by the DCCC],” argued Democratic consultant David Dixon, who served as the DCCC’s political director in the Republican wave year of 1994.

“Republican districts are trending back to the mean after our candidates opened up leads after their initial TV buys. Imagine if we didn’t have 1,000 points a week on TV in competitive races right now,” Vogel added.

The DCCC is in the middle of a final $21 million TV blitz in 66 Congressional districts, which could save a few of the party’s at-risk seats.

Who is right about strategy? Probably both, to some extent.

By spending heavily in September against Skelton ($367,000), Donnelly ($328,000), Chandler ($326,000), Boucher ($306,000) and others, the NRCC helped put those races in play.

Had the DCCC matched NRCC spending in those places, the NRCC might have pulled out of some of those districts before they were put into play.

Similarly, by not spending early in places such as Ohio’s 1st and 15th, Colorado’s 4th and Florida’s 24th — districts that were clearly at great risk — the DCCC allowed the NRCC to stay out of those contests, saving GOP resources for other contests.

The NRCC spent more than $930,000 in September in Florida’s 2nd, Tennessee’s 8th and North Carolina’s 7th combined, while the DCCC took a pass on those races. Had the DCCC matched Republican spending in those districts, the NRCC might simply have flinched, moving out of North Carolina’s 7th, for example.

But the nature of the cycle worked against Democrats no matter how and where they chose to spend their cash. No matter its financial resources, the DCCC was dealt a bad hand this cycle.

The Republican message of change (against President Barack Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in particular) resonated better than the multiple Democratic messages, about George W. Bush, privatizing Social Security or the unacceptability of the GOP nominees. When voters want to send a message of change, it’s difficult to change their focus.

Yes, Republicans helped make the playing field wider. But as observers on both sides of the partisan divide agree, the country’s mood made voters receptive to the Republican message of change.

Finally, if you’ve made it to the end of this column, you might incorrectly assume that I am suggesting the DCCC deserves blame for this spanking Democrats are about to receive. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Whatever you think about the parties’ strategies and tactics, blame for the Democrats’ coming electoral bloodbath clearly rests with the White House and with the party’s Congressional leadership.

Blame Obama, Pelosi, David Axelrod, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, former economics adviser Christina Romer and whoever else was involved in creating Democratic policy, but don’t blame the DCCC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the House and Senate losses. And feel free to give the NRCC and the National Republican Senatorial Committee some credit, too.