Friday, February 15, 2008

Media Buy Is the Message

By Nathan L. Gonzales

It’s going to be a long year for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Through 2007, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had a $35.1 million to $5.4 million advantage over the NRCC, and some Republican strategists privately express significant concern over how the financial discrepancy will play out on a district-by-district level.

In recent history, Republicans have enjoyed the financial edge. The NRCC spent more than $83 million in independent expenditures in 75 districts in the previous cycle compared with $67 million in independent expenditures in more than 50 seats for the DCCC. Now Democrats are looking at twice the financial advantage that Republicans had then, coupled with a favorable political environment.

Through the end of the year, Republicans didn’t have half the money they spent on just three suburban Philadelphia districts in 2006. The NRCC spent at least $3.5 million each in Pennsylvania’s 6th, 7th and 8th districts. And the two party committees combined for almost $18 million in spending in those three districts alone (Democrats ousted GOP incumbents in two of the three). That’s just one example of the spending battles the NRCC can’t afford this year.

In the previous cycle, the NRCC won 12 of the 31 seats where it spent at least $1 million and seven of the 17 seats where it spent at least $2 million. All but two of those seats were Republican-held. According to Republican operatives familiar with the 2006 races, the NRCC’s heavy spending played a critical role in keeping open seats in Illinois’ 6th district and Minnesota’s 6th district in the GOP column. It also helped to re-elect Reps. Jim Gerlach (Pa.) and Dave Reichert (Wash.). In other districts, such as Ohio’s 18th, even the NRCC’s $3.4 million wasn’t going to keep that seat in the Republican column.

With a new majority, Democrats do have significantly more seats to defend.

“Democrats might have a fundraising advantage, but we will have terrain and issues in our favor,” NRCC press secretary Ken Spain said. “In a presidential election year, Democrats will be forced to defend a number of incumbents who have walked the plank for [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] over the course of the previous two years.”

But individual fundraising by Democratic incumbents has been strong, with fewer resources the NRCC is going to be forced to prioritize.

“The challengers basically won’t get a dime,” one GOP strategist said.

Both committees generally give first priority and focus to incumbents, followed by open seats and then challenger races. With a number of vulnerable incumbents and more than two dozen open seats to defend, GOP challengers shouldn’t expect much more than a pat on the back from their campaign committee. If Republicans aren’t able to keep the DCCC on the defensive, more Democratic money could be freed up to challenge GOP incumbents.

NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) has explained to his colleagues that the days of campaign welfare are over and that incumbents will no longer be rewarded for incompetent campaign operations. In fact, then-Indiana Rep. John Hostettler’s (R) loss in the previous cycle was probably a net gain of a couple of million dollars for the NRCC going forward. He was an abysmal fundraiser, and the NRCC frequently had to bail him out financially.

Even if Republicans keep pace with Democratic fundraising this year, the NRCC still will face a huge financial disadvantage. That means the DCCC could spend at least $1 million in each of anywhere from 15 to 25 races without a paid response by the NRCC.

Depending on the media market, that could translate into anywhere from a two-week to two-month onslaught of Democratic ads. Of course, in some cases, Democratic money and message may not be enough to swing a heavily Republican district. But in a competitive open-seat or challenger race, $1 million unanswered could be very significant.

Republicans also are defending seats in very expensive media markets. In the New York City media market, the NRCC will have to decide how much to spend on the New Jersey open seats (the 3rd and 7th districts) and Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays’ 4th district seat. The NRCC will also have to decide if Democratic target Rep. Vito Fossella needs help in New York’s 13th district.

In the Chicago media market, Republicans are playing defense in Illinois’ open 11th and 14th districts, defending incumbents in the 6th and 10th districts, and hoping to target Rep. Melissa Bean in the 8th district. It costs about $647 per point for critical third-quarter television advertising there (according to Media Strategies and Research), meaning a solid, weekly ad buy will cost the committee at least a half-million dollars. In 2006, each party spent more than $3 million in Illinois’ 6th district race alone.

The softening economy could help both parties by stabilizing or lowering ad rates nationwide, one GOP consultant said.

The presidential contest continues to be a key unknown factor in this cycle’s House races. According to one Republican operative, the NRCC may be able to get away with not spending money on phones and direct mail this year and rely, instead, on normal presidential turnout driven by the Republican National Committee and the presidential nominee.

And as the Democratic presidential contest drags on, it’s unclear whether the overall political dynamic and landscape of House races will shift. Right now, Republicans are defending about twice as many competitive seats but would embrace Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) as the Democratic nominee to galvanize the GOP base.

It remains to be seen how some of the Democratic freshmen in Republican-leaning districts perform in a presidential year. Republicans are consistently confident that presidential- year voters will come out and support the GOP candidate. But $1 million from the DCCC in a race can go a long way in muting some of that natural Republican advantage.

“At the beginning of the cycle, a victory would have been not losing seats. Today we’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll pick up a couple,” DCCC Communications Director Jennifer Crider said. “We are realistic about the challenges ahead: We’re trying to beat history by staying on the offense, defend against Republican 527s with hundreds of millions of dollars, and have 75 seats in play — all in a challenging fundraising environment.”

One change from previous cycles could be the NRCC’s spending on polling. In the past, the committee has split the cost of surveys with vulnerable incumbents. But with limited resources, that responsibility may fall completely to the candidate. A “brush-fire” survey costs about $8,000.

In general, the NRCC will have to decide how much of its limited resources it will spend on polling to determine where to place the rest of the money.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on February 12, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.