The Battle for the House, As Told Through Super PAC Ad Reservations

by Jacob Rubashkin April 17, 2020 · 10:34 AM EDT

Even though it’s not yet summer, there are windows looking into the fall. Recent television ad reservations from the Congressional Leadership Fund and the House Majority PAC show that, despite higher profile races for the Senate and White House, the battle for the House of Representatives is still very much afoot. Combined, the Republican-aligned CLF and the Democratic-aligned HMP placed nearly $100 million in initial ad reservations. 

The competing buys — $51 million for HMP and $43 million for CLF — are placed by media market, not by congressional district, so matching dollars to individual races isn’t an exact science and groups have flexibility to switch races within a market. But a comparison of the two buys, which combine to cover 18 states and roughly four dozen races, and where they overlap (10 states and roughly two dozen races) paints a portrait of the emerging House battleground.

These reservations do not guarantee the parties will spend money in these markets and races because a group can cancel, increase, or decrease spending as Election Day approaches. But the reservations are a good indicator of where the groups are likely to spend resources because candidates and the official party campaign committees will make their own spending decisions based on these plans.

The Consensus Battlefield
The 10 states targeted by both HMP and CLF are Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia. Within those states, the Atlanta, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Houston media markets have emerged as the costliest for both Super PACs. Three of those four are major metro areas in presidential battleground states, contributing to their high advertising costs and prominence in these initial buys. 

In Atlanta, HMP reserved $4.5 million for ads and CLF reserved $3.2 million, both likely targeting Georgia’s 6th and 7th Districts in the Atlanta suburbs. Both are traditionally Republican seats that have swung heavily toward Democrats in recent cycles. The 6th District is rated Tilt Democratic and will feature a rematch from 2018 between freshman Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath and former GOP Rep. Karen Handel. Georgia’s 7th, now an open seat due to Rep. Rob Woodall not seeking re-election, played host to the closest race of 2018 and is rated a Toss-up. Carolyn Bordeaux, who lost to Woodall by a few hundred votes in 2018, is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. 

In Minneapolis, HMP has placed $6.8 million in ads. CLF has placed $3.25 million between Minneapolis and Fargo, ND (CLF did not distinguish between the two, while HMP listed a separate $200,000 buy in Fargo). Potential targets are Minnesota’s 1st,2nd, and 3rd Districts, all of which changed hands in 2018. While all three were competitive in 2018, the 2nd and 3rd Districts have largely fallen off the map as freshmen Democratic Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips face no credible challenge. Don’t be surprised if most of the money on both sides is directed toward the 1st District, where Rep. Jim Hagedorn faces a rematch with 2018 Democratic nominee Dan Feehan (he lost that election by half a percentage point). Republicans have privately groused about Hagedorn’s lack of effort in his re-election campaign, even before he announced his cancer diagnosis; CLF’s investment in this race is a sign they know he needs the help. 

The Philadelphia market, which attracted $6.1 million from HMP and $6.5 million from CLF, covers a set of competitive races in Pennsylvania and South Jersey. In Pennsylvania’s 1st District, GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick barely held on in 2018 despite his opponent spending $20 million against him, but he hasn’t drawn a top challenger yet this year and caught a break when the best-funded Democrat running dropped out. This race is no longer a top defensive priority for Republicans. In New Jersey’s 2nd District, Democrat-turned-Republican Jeff Van Drew successfully cleared the primary field with an endorsement from President Donald Trump, but now faces two Democratic challengers and a national party angry at him for turning coat over impeachment. And in New Jersey’s 3rd, where Trump won by 6 points, Republicans had hoped to mount a serious challenge to freshman Rep. Andy Kim, but neither businessman David Richter or former Burlington County freeholder Katie Gibbs have gained traction. Both severely lag Kim in fundraising, so it’s unsurprising to see potential outside support from CLF. 

And in Houston, HMP has placed $2.2 million and CLF has placed $3.1 million, the potential targets are Texas’ 7th District, where freshman Rep. Lizzie Fletcher is facing one of the top GOP recruits in the country, veteran Wesley Hunt, and Texas’ 22nd, where 2018 Democratic nominee Sri Kulkarni will face one of two GOP candidates now in a runoff. If Kathaleen Wall gets the nod, the wealthy businesswoman will likely be expected to put up significant personal money rather than relying on outside help, but if it’s Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls, he’ll need the financial help. 

Other seats targeted by both groups include: Iowa’s 1st (Abby Finkenauer, Tilt Democratic), 2nd (Democrat Dave Loebsack’s open seat, Tilt Democratic), and 3rd (Cindy Axne, Toss-up) districts; Maine’s 2nd District (Jared Golden, Tilt Democratic); Michigan’s 8th (Elissa Slotkin) and 11th Districts (Haley Stevens, both Likely Democratic); Minnesota’s 7th (Collin Peterson, Tilt Democratic); Nebraska’s 2nd (Don Bacon, Lean Republican); Nevada’s 3rd (Susie Lee, Lean Democratic); Pennsylvania’s 10th (Scott Perry, Tilt Republican); and Virginia 2nd (Elaine Luria, Lean Democratic) and 7th (Abigail Spanberger, Tilt Democratic). 

Of the two dozen districts with overlapping ad reservations, just four are currently held by Republicans, indicating that the main story of 2020 will be Democrats defending the gains they made in the midterms, rather than significantly expanding the majority further.

CLF-only markets
The buys also tell a story where the battleground diverges. CLF placed $4.6 million between Bakersfield/Fresno and Los Angeles, while HMP made no initial California reservations. The potential targets, California’s 21st (TJ Cox, Tilt Democratic), 25th (Katie Hill’s vacant seat, Likely Democratic), 39th (Gil Cisernos, Likely Democratic), 45th (Katie Porter, Likely Democratic), and 48th districts (Harley Rouda, Lean Democratic), are all seats Democrats flipped in 2018, and feature some of the best Democratic fundraisers, which may play into CLF’s decision to bolster GOP candidates. 

Similarly, a $4.7 million buy split between Syracuse/Binghamton and New York City will bolster Republicans in competitive districts who have struggled to match their opponents’ fundraising: Claudia Tenney in New York’s 22nd, Nicole Malliotakis in New York’s 11th, and Tom Keane, Jr. in New Jersey’s 7th. 

CLF is also staking an early position in several frontline Democratic districts in deeply Republican states, such as Utah’s 4th District, South Carolina’s 1st District, and Oklahoma’s 5th District, as well as New Mexico’s 2nd District, where Trump won by 11 points. All of those races are currently rated as Toss-ups. 

HMP-only markets
The markets in which HMP but not CLF have reserved are all emerging presidential battlegrounds, placed early to avoid rate increases in the fall. They also give a sense of which GOP districts Democrats have their sights on. 

A $1.1 million buy in Phoenix will go to defending Rep. Tom O’Halleran in Arizona’s 1st District (Likely Democratic) and also putting pressure on GOP Rep. Dave Schweikert in the 6th District, who is beset by an ongoing ethics investigation and facing a spirited challenger from physician Hiral Tipirneni. Another $3.3 million in Miami will help shore up first-term Reps. Debbie Murcasel-Powell and Donna Shalala in this perennial swing state, and Rep. Chris Pappas in New Hampshire’s 1st District, will be the beneficiary of a buy in Boston. In Pennsylvania, seven-figure buys in Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre will likely bolster Reps. Conor Lamb and Matt Cartwright feel good, but they were both already in good position for the fall.

HMP’s most offensive posture is in Texas, where the 21st, 23rd, and 24th Districts are all potential targets. The 23rd is the only one where Democrats are already favored, but reservations in San Antonio and Dallas indicate Democrats’ optimism in challenging the GOP for the 21st (Chip Roy, Likely Republican) and 24th (Kenny Marchant’s open seat, Tilt Republican).