Early Battlefields Emerge in the Nation’s Middle

by Stuart Rothenberg October 7, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

While the fight for the control of the House of Representatives is taking place on a battlefield that includes almost every state (Alaska and Wyoming are among the exceptions), four Congressional districts have emerged as early battlefields in the Independent Expenditures war being waged by the two parties’ campaign committees.

Both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have plowed resources or reserved into three open seats – Arkansas 1, Michigan 1, Wisconsin 7 – and into Michigan’s 7th District, where freshman Democrat Mark Schauer and former Congressman Tim Walberg (R) are in a battle.

The Arkansas seat, currently held by retiring Democratic Rep. Marion Berry, pits businessman and ag broadcaster Rick Crawford (R) against Berry’s chief of staff, Chad Causey (D).

Crawford is a classic outsider – someone who has never been involved in politics and has had to learn to become a candidate. Politics comes more easily to Causey, but his D.C. connections and Democratic label are not assets in this kind of year and political environment.

The DCCC recently upped its TV buy in the Memphis and Jonesboro media markets, and the committee has already invested or reserved over $1.2 million in the race. The NRCC, in turn, has reserved over $770,000 of time, and the American Future Fund got in early for Crawford. Total non-candidate spending in the district could exceed $2.2 million in a district which had a median income of $28,940 according to the 2000 Census.

Michigan 1 is usually identified as the “U.P. seat,” though it includes plenty of territory south of the state’s Upper Peninsula. Rep. Bart Stupak (D) is retiring, and this socially conservative area looks to be a prime target for Republicans.

But the GOP frontrunner was upset in the primary by surgeon Dan Benishek, another untested political unknown. The Democrats, in contrast, nominated state Rep. Gary McDowell.

Both parties and outside groups have invested in the race and reserved time for the final weeks of the campaign, which now looks like a jump ball. American Future Fund, Americans for prosperity and the NRCC have all been on the air for the Republican side, while McDowell has been up and received heavy support from the DCCC’s IE effort and more modest support from the Michigan Democratic Party.

Outside groups so far have committed almost $1.8 million to the race, according to GOP operatives who are tracking candidate and outside spending

Currently held by retiring Democratic Rep. David Obey, Wisconsin’s 7th district has seen an unusually early aggressive battle between Ashland County Prosecutor Sean Duffy (R) and state Sen. Julie Lassa, the Democrat who hopes to hold the seat for her party.

While the district leans Democratic, in this political environment it is a toss-up. Democrats acknowledge that Duffy started off ahead, but they insist that after they blasted him on TV, the contest closed dramatically.

Each of the party IE campaigns has so far spent over $300,000 in the district, and the NRCC and DCCC have each reserved at least 7,000 gross ratings points for the entire race, in a district the takes in much of northwest Wisconsin and undoubtedly includes more cows than voters.

Finally, as of the beginning of October, the NRCC’s Independent Expenditure effort had spent more money in Michigan 7 than any other district in the country.

Initially, former Congressman Walberg looked to have a strong chance to reclaim his old House seat. But Democrats have fought back, with the DCCC’s IE pounding Walberg for saying that he favors the privatization of Social Security and for setting a date certain after which people could opt out of the program. Even Republican operatives think that Walberg seriously hurt his prospects.

As of October 2nd, according to Roll Call, the NRCC had poured in almost $800,000 to this district to help Walberg. Americans for Prosperity and American Future Fund have reserved TV time costing another $700,000.

On the Democratic side, the DCCC has committed close to $1.2 million, with the American Federate of State County and Municipal Employees dumping in another $900,000 and the Communications Workers of America spending just over $50,000 to date.

Given that Schauer has reserved about 10,000 points on broadcast and plans to spend another $300,000 on cable TV, for a total of over $1 million, this race looks like a money pit for all concerned.