Monday, August 04, 2008

DCCC Money Could Tip the Balance in Races at the Wire

By Stuart Rothenberg

With House Republicans still reeling over the party’s brand problems, President Bush’s unpopularity and the Democrats’ advantage on every domestic issue, money remains a major headache for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

At the end of June, the NRCC had $8.4 million in the bank, compared with $56.6 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The NRCC has trailed the DCCC in fundraising this cycle — taking in $80.3 million to the DCCC’s $109 million — but also has spent far more money than the Democratic committee: $72 million for the NRCC to $55 million for the DCCC.

Critics of the Republicans say that the NRCC spent far too much money early in the cycle on phone-bank fundraising, which the campaign committee relied on during good times but which has failed to bring in money after the 2006 elections. In addition, the NRCC outspent the DCCC in special elections this cycle, had unusual auditing expenses and had a larger debt to eliminate.

In any case, the NRCC’s current disadvantage is far worse than it was two years ago. At the end of June 2006, the DCCC had a small $5.5 million advantage — $32 million on hand for the DCCC to $26.5 million for the NRCC. This June, the DCCC’s advantage is more than $42 million.

And the DCCC’s advantage is likely to grow as this cycle progresses.

Last cycle, from July 1 to Oct. 18 (the Federal Election Commission’s pre-general-election report), the NRCC raised $46.57 million, about $15 million more than the DCCC raised over that time. This cycle, with Democrats headed for another good election and certain to make considerable gains to their House majority, it’s likely that the DCCC will reverse those numbers, outraising the NRCC between now and mid-October.

As a result of the DCCC’s financial advantage, Democratic strategists will have plenty of options after Labor Day about where to spend money.

Two years ago this week, in this newspaper, staff writer Lauren W. Whittington wrote that the DCCC had reserved TV time “in markets covering as many as two dozen targeted districts at an estimated cost of $30 million.” This cycle, the DCCC has already reserved $53 million in air time in 51 Congressional districts, a significant increase over two years ago.

But that’s just the first two rounds of the DCCC’s media buy. Additional spending on races is likely.

Republican insiders expect that the NRCC will have something in the order of $28 million or $29 million to spend in races, which includes the committee going into debt to the tune of about $8 million. That would be a manageable debt for House Republicans, who came out of the 2006 election with a debt exceeding $18 million.

Two years ago, the NRCC spent more than $35 million on its top 12 races (and a stunning $21.1 million on its top half-dozen contests), a level of spending that Republicans are not likely to reach for all races this time.

House Democrats have been saying that their campaign committee spent about $70 million in 47 races last cycle. It is difficult to believe that the DCCC won’t be able to exceed that figure this time, especially since the committee had much more money in the bank on June 30 this year than it did two years ago.

Democratic operatives repeatedly warn that they expect “outside” groups (that is, 527s) to supplement the NRCC’s spending, offsetting some of the advantage that the DCCC now holds over the NRCC.

While strategists at Freedom’s Watch, one of the groups expected to spend money to help elect House Republicans, modestly warn that the group hasn’t yet raised the money to be a factor, it seems likely that some substantial nonparty committee spending will supplement the NRCC’s spending, though not to the extent that it would erase the DCCC’s advantage.

But DCCC spending will also be supplemented by party allies. For example, the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund is already advertising against Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.).

The DCCC’s big financial advantage could well turn out to be a difference-maker in at least a handful of Congressional races, maybe more. Party strategists can afford to invest in some second- and even third-tier contests to see whether they might steal one from the GOP, while the NRCC will have to be smarter in making their more limited resources go further.

Still, both party committees will have interesting decisions to make. How many races will the NRCC play in? And will the DCCC be a major player in expensive media markets, including Chicago and New York, or try to make a difference in more difficult, but less expensive, races in places such as Idaho and Wyoming?

Probably the biggest decision of all is likely to rest with the DCCC. Given the party’s opportunities and the unusually favorable atmospherics, will the committee roll the dice and go heavily into debt, even beyond the $11 million it is expected to, in order to go for the GOP’s jugular?

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 31, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.