Can the GOP Afford a Wave?

January 19, 2010 · 8:00 AM EST

After big gubernatorial wins in Virginia and New Jersey last year and the possibility of picking up the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) seat in today’s special election, there’s no question that Republican spirits are high at the moment.

But the bank accounts at the GOP campaign committees are disproportionately low, and there is some nervousness among party operatives that they won’t have enough money to take advantage of a tremendous opportunity at the ballot box this fall.

Still, while Democrats may be banking on having their large cash advantage help insulate them from heavy House seat losses, there are some political climates that you can’t spend your way out of — a lesson that Republicans learned in 2006.

That cycle, when Republicans were in the majority, the National Republican Congressional Committee spent more than $83.5 million on independent expenditures compared with $64.1 million in spending by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The spending discrepancy didn’t stop Democrats from winning 30 seats and taking control of the House in what became a national wave election. In 11 of the seats that flipped, the Republican incumbent outspent the Democratic challenger and the NRCC outspent the DCCC, but the Republicans still lost. And in two more GOP open seats, both the Republican nominee and the NRCC had the spending edge, but the Democrats still won.

But even when Republicans had the financial edge, they weren’t outspending Democrats by 2-to-1 or even 3-to-1, a prospect that the GOP could face this year.

This cycle, the NRCC had $4.3 million in the bank (and $2 million in debt) on Nov. 30, compared with the DCCC’s $15.3 million (and $2.7 million in debt). Year-end reports are due later this month.

Republicans are having a difficult time turning grass-roots conservative anger into campaign dollars. Multiple House GOP strategists expressed concern that the Republican National Committee — headed by headline-grabbing Chairman Michael Steele — won’t have the money that it normally invests in Congressional races in midterm elections.

“It is not lost on anyone that accomplishing our goal of retiring Nancy Pelosi as Speaker will require more assistance from House Republicans, as well as all of our donors and friends,” NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay said. “With that support, we’re confident that we will close the gap in the coming months in order to keep Democrats accountable for their reckless agenda.”

At a briefing with reporters last month, DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) pointed out that Republicans hardly have enough money to fully fund one top-tier House race, let alone their full slate of targets.

If the NRCC can’t raise enough money to fund targeted races, the RNC has traditionally been the place to look for a financial bailout in a midterm election. In 2006, the RNC spent about $25 million on Congressional races.

Only a portion of that money was transferred directly to the campaign committees and turned into television ads. More importantly, according to multiple GOP strategists, the RNC usually shoulders the burden for the “ground game” in competitive states, including funding absentee voter programs.

Even during the past three years that the GOP has spent in the Congressional minority, the RNC has maintained a cash advantage over the Democratic National Committee. But after spending more than $90 million last year, including heavy investments in the Virginia ($9 million) and New Jersey ($4 million) wins, the RNC showed a cash balance of just $8.7 million at the end of November. The DNC spent $71.6 million and had $13 million in the bank.

Even with an expected uptick in GOP fundraising, there is little doubt Democrats will have the financial edge this year.

But the question remains: How much will it matter?

In 2008, the DCCC spent a total of $75 million on IEs in 64 districts. The NRCC spent more than $21 million in 35 districts. Taking a closer look, the DCCC spent $1 million unanswered (the NRCC spent nothing) in 19 districts. Democrats won 15 of those races.

But that spending advantage was coupled with a favorable political climate. It’s unclear how much money it will take when Democratic candidates are running into a headwind, if not a wave.

“If I had to choose money or climate, it’s not even close,” according to one veteran Democratic strategist, who would choose a positive climate hands down.

Past election results show that challengers don’t have to equal incumbent spending, but multiple GOP House strategists don’t believe many of their candidates can withstand a 2-1 or 3-1 disadvantage. Money allows a candidate and party to define their opponent and the narrative of the race. But it doesn’t always work when a national story line overshadows the contest.

“If the climate stays the way it is now, the money will come in late,” the Democratic source added. “[Republicans] won’t need as much as what people think.”

Even with a financial advantage, the DCCC will likely face some tough spending decisions. Democrats may have to learn to cut their losses in some seats early on because, in the end, it’s not necessarily about how much money you have, it’s about how you spend it.

In 2006, the NRCC kept pumping money into Ohio’s open 18th district ($3.2 million), the open seat in Texas’ 22nd district ($1.8 million) and the re-election race of then-Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.) ($1.5 million), even though it became clear well before Election Day that each race was unwinnable.

But conversely, heavy NRCC spending in some races was a big factor in the GOP holding as many as a dozen seats.

With an expanding playing field that increasingly puts Democrats on the defensive, Democratic offensive opportunities appear to be shrinking. And with more vulnerable incumbents looking to the committee for help, Member races have to take priority over open-seat and challenger contests when it comes to funding priorities.