Republicans are performing critical triage to their midterm spending strategy as they seek to hold on to their House majority in a difficult midterm year.
The House GOP’s campaign arm pulled the plug on its remaining ad buys last week for the Pittsburgh media market, where Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.) is desperately fighting to hang on to his seat in a race against Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.).
It’s grim news for Rothfus, who has largely been seen as a dead man walking since redistricting left him with a Democratic-leaning district and a difficult opponent in Lamb.
For the GOP, it’s likely a sign of things to come as the party seeks to target its money toward the races most likely to save its majority. Democrats need 23 seats to take back control of the House, and the GOP is defending dozens of seats that are seen as vulnerable.
“It’s a giant chessboard,” said one longtime GOP operative. “There’s obviously limited resources, and you need to make tough decisions. This is sort of an art form as opposed to a science.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) must decide if it should put energy into competitive and Democratic-leaning districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 — or if the party is better served protecting GOP strongholds that could be in play if a “blue wave” materializes.
If the news turns bad, it will lead to difficult calls between the NRCC and incumbent GOP lawmakers.
“There could be a bunch more. It all depends on the polling. People evaluate these things on an hourly, daily basis,” said one former NRCC staffer. “These decisions aren’t made lightly. If you have a race that’s just not winnable and you have limited resources, you can’t spend just to make somebody feel better.”
Besides Rothfus, the GOP incumbents who are locked in competitive races tilted in Democrats’ favor include Reps. Barbara Comstock (Va.), Erik Paulsen (Minn.), Jason Lewis (Minn.) and Rod Blum (Iowa), according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“Any time you cut bait, especially on a member of Congress, it’s a hard decision — but one that has to be made,” the former staffer added. “It’s always a stab in the back whenever that happens to a campaign.”
Democrats have better-sounding decisions to make, though the party will be second-guessed if it makes the wrong calls on where to put its money a little more than 40 days before the elections.
On Monday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) canceled all remaining TV spending planned in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Democrats are feeling increasingly confident about their chances of flipping a seat.
“It’s a good problem to have for the Democrats,” the GOP operative said.
Midterm elections are historically tough for the president’s party, which typically loses around 30 seats in the president’s first midterm. President Trump’s low approval ratings and the intense political passions that have stirred over the past two years have Democrats hoping that they’ll ride a large wave to a House majority this fall.
Democrats also have more money, as the DCCC has nearly $70 million in cash on hand, compared to the NRCC’s $65 million, according to the latest data filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Republicans have more than one reason to not want to cut off support to some of their vulnerable members.
The optics of cutting off support to a female lawmaker like Comstock — especially at a time when the GOP is already poised to lose 25 percent of its female elected officeholders — could be detrimental.
And so far, the party is showing no signs of giving up on her suburban, Northern Virginia-area district that Clinton easily carried in 2016.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is slated to attend an October fundraising event for Comstock next month, according to the Washington Examiner, while the NRCC has reserved $5 million in ads for the targeted lawmaker.
“The bad PR of canceling on a woman in a tough race I’m sure will be weighed in this environment,” said the former NRCC staffer. “So we’ll see, but that’s a lot of money. They might have to move some things around. I would definitely keep an eye on her. She might be the one to be next if they don’t see a path to victory.”
The House GOP’s campaign arm already faced criticism this summer for essentially going off the airwaves in August and for allocating funds in districts that some Republicans considered a lost cause.
“Not every decision is going to be met with universal applause. Both parties need to make those tough decisions. It’s not easy,” said the GOP operative. “You expose yourself to criticism both before and after the election.”
On the flip side, Democrats could also face backlash if they blow it this fall.
The DCCC is deciding whether to pull out of races where they feel confident and whether they should start funneling resources to districts that could now be in play, like the districts of indicted Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Chris Collins (R-N.Y.).
This week, the party’s chief fundraising committee canceled all remaining TV spending reserved in Blum’s district in Iowa. It also canceled ad buys scheduled through the end of October in Phoenix, where Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D) is facing a challenge from Republican Wendy Rogers, though there is an ad reservation through Oct. 8.
O’Halleran’s district, which went for Trump by just 1 point in 2016, is rated “likely Democratic” by the Cook Political Report. But Blum’s race is considered “lean Democratic” and Republicans have been stumping hard to keep the seat in GOP hands.
“We never take anything for granted, but these candidates have run very effective campaigns and put themselves in a solid position,” said one Democratic operative.
The parties consider a whole host of factors when deciding where to spend their money.
That includes poll numbers, whether the candidate is running a good campaign and fundraising on their own, what the opponent is doing in the race, whether outside groups are willing to step in and the level of overall resources that the party has.
Preference is also usually given to an incumbent as opposed to a congressional candidate who is running for an open seat.
And the cost of advertising in a certain media market also factors heavily into the decisionmaking process.
“If I’m looking at a race where we can probably stay in the race or get in the race, but it’s gonna cost us a fortune — could I spend that money in three other races with cheaper markets where we have a better chance?” said the Republican operative.
“It’s a cost-benefit thing. We might be able to get more bang for our buck in three districts.”