Debt: One Campaign Issue Parties Are Very Familiar With

by Nathan L. Gonzales August 26, 2010 · 2:00 PM EDT

Even with the economy and ballooning national debt at the top of voters’ minds this fall, don’t be surprised when the Republican and Democratic campaign committees dig into the red to help pay for expensive television ads across the country.

Extending a line of credit is a common practice for the House and Senate party committees in the fall of an election year, and the parties use it regardless of whether they’re in the minority or the majority or whether they’re ahead or behind in the cash race.

“We had more cash in 2006 than any committee in the era of hard money,” former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) said. “But we still felt like we were in a predicament and needed to extend our line of credit.”

The two key reasons for the parties' biannual debt tradition are simple.

“You’re either trying to run the table or save the majority,” added Reynolds, who oversaw both scenarios when the GOP grew its majority in 2004 and then lost it two years later.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) recently announced the GOP’s plan to spend $50 million on races this fall, but to reach that figure, the NRCC will certainly need to extend its line of credit.

Over the last three cycles, the NRCC has gone into debt by $3 million (2004), $14 million (2006) and $8 million (2008).

In 2004, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee borrowed $10 million but then boosted its line of credit to $11.5 million in 2006, when it was on the cusp of recapturing the majority in the House. The committee borrowed $20 million last cycle to help expand that majority by an additional 20 seats.

On the Senate side, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has taken out a $5 million line of credit that past three cycles, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s debt has ranged from $2.5 million in 2004 to $6 million in 2006 to almost $11 million in 2008. The 2004 cycle was a poor one for the party, while Democrats secured the Senate majority in 2006 and then expanded it in 2008.

Even when debt isn’t a hot topic, it’s still a difficult decision for committee officials who are balancing the urgency of the current cycle with the legacy left to the next chairman.

“It’s not taken lightly. It has interest on it,” Reynolds said.

This year, Republicans are on offense but facing a cash disparity with Democrats. That's the same scenario Democrats were facing in 2006, as they had less cash than Republicans but growing opportunities to flip seats into their column. That cycle House Republicans spent heavily to try to save their majority, but to no avail.

“Cash won’t solve all problems, but it sure helps,” Reynolds said.