'It's daunting': Democrats crushing House Republicans on the airwaves

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Democratic congressional candidates are swamping Republicans on the airwaves in another sign they’re poised to pad their House majority in November.

In the most competitive 94 districts, Democrats have booked over $177 million in ads since Sept. 1, while their GOP opponents have booked $93 million, according to a POLITICO analysis of advertising data. Republican outside groups have partly made up the difference, but the party is still bracing for a string of defeats next month.

“At this point, it’s pretty clear there’s going to be losses. The question is just how many, and if Republicans can keep it in the mid-to-high single digits,” said Ken Spain, a GOP strategist and former communications director for House Republicans’ campaign arm. “The money and the momentum is so significantly one-sided.”

Even after picking up 40 seats last cycle, House Democrats are positioned to add more, thanks to Donald Trump’s unpopularity in the suburbs. And while the president declared in last week’s debate that the GOP would reclaim the lower chamber, few strategists in his party agree. House Republicans are saddled with an unfavorable environment and facing extraordinarily well-financed opponents.

Democratic candidates have spent at least twice as much as Republican candidates on TV in nearly four dozen districts, according to data from Advertising Analytics, a media tracking firm. That edge is particularly noticeable in open seats. In southeast Iowa, Democrat Rita Hart has spent nine times more on TV than her GOP opponent. On the South Shore of Long Island, Democrat Jackie Gordon has spent $1.7 million on ads, while Republican Andrew Garbarino has spent less than $100,000. And in suburban Houston, Democrat Sri Kulkarni has aired $2.7 million worth of ads, six times more than his Republican rival.

The discrepancy has forced outside groups to take on a huge role in Republican campaigns, an inefficient answer in part because candidates purchase air time at much cheaper rates than super PACs.

Congressional Leadership Fund, House Republicans’ main outside group, has borne the brunt of this work and will have spent at least $140 million by the end of the cycle. It is airing $4.7 million in ads in the Houston market to aid Kulkarni’s opponent, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls.

“I’ve been the guy who had less resources or no resources and now I’m the guy with more resources,” said Kulkarni, who lost a close 2018 race. “I can tell you it’s a lot better to be on this side.

Outside groups and party committees often air attack ads, leaving the candidate to tell their own story. But Nehls is so starved for cash that he had to go dark on broadcast TV in the third week of October. CLF devoted half of its most recent ad to touting the Republican’s career in the military and in law enforcement.

“We’re the only one who has been able to put out a positive message in the last few days before the election, on health care, on fighting the coronavirus, on helping small businesses,” Kulkarni said in an interview.

“The only thing that’s even propping him up is super PACs,” Kulkarni said

CLF is similarly involved in other districts, carrying the bulk of the advertising for candidates like former GOP Rep. Claudia Tenney in her rematch with Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), Bob Good, the Republican candidate who ousted Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) in a primary in central Virginia, and for Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R-Minn.), whose Democratic opponent has invested eight times more on TV.

It is also running field operations in 10 districts, including in two open seats in suburban Texas.

“The ‘Green Wave’ for Democrat candidates is profound,” CLF president Dan Conston said in a statement. “Given the financial gap that it’s created on the candidate side, CLF has substantially expanded our role in races this cycle to be more encompassing and will our way to a more level playing field.”

The GOP has long expressed alarm over Democrats’ fundraising dominance as they scrambled to develop their own counterpart to ActBlue, the small-dollar online donation site. The new Republican platform, WinRed, has grown quickly since its debut in June of last year, but not fast enough to match Democrats.

Besides CLF, a few other Republican groups have stepped in to help. The conservative Club for Growth is doing substantial advertising for GOP Rep. Chip Roy, who faces Wendy Davis, Texas’s 2014 Democratic nominee for governor, and Republican Nick Freitas, who is challenging Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.). Both candidates have spent less than half as much as their opponents on ads.

The House landscape has turned into a nightmare scenario for Republicans, who have abandoned many offensive opportunities in the final weeks and instead retrenched to protect incumbents who are staring down challengers with massive war chests.

An analysis of the most recent round of candidate campaign-finance filings, which detail spending through mid-October, paints a similarly bleak picture. Republican nominees have been outspent this cycle by their Democratic opponents in 48 of the top 64 most competitive House races — and two dozen of them were outspent by a two-to-one margin or greater.

This has been part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s strategy from the start. In a briefing last week, DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos predicted Democrats would grow their majority and specifically touted the committee’s ability to stretch Republican resources thin by landing well-funded challengers all over the country, even in areas Trump carried handily.

“All 38 of our Red to Blue candidates are raising incredible amounts of money,” Bustos said, referring to committee’s program for top challenger campaigns. “It allows them to get their messaging out to the voters, and that’s what’s really helping to put us in a strong position this deep into Republican territory.”

Democrats’ fundraising advantage is so strong that its allowed political neophytes to dwarf the bank accounts of incumbents who had been in office for years.

In Alaska, GOP Rep. Don Young, the longest-serving member of the House, spent $1.7 million this cycle, compared to his opponent’s nearly $3 million, according to recent campaign-finance filings. In suburban Phoenix, Democrat Hiral Tipirneni has invested nearly $5 million, to embattled GOP Rep. David Schweikert’s $1.7 million. In a Cincinnati battleground, longtime GOP Rep. Steve Chabot has spent over $700,000 less than his opponent.

Only one swing-seat Democratic incumbent, Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-Texas), was outspent by a challenger throughout the cycle. But her suburban House seat has trended so quickly away from the GOP that outside super PACs are no longer airing TV ads to help the Republican nominee, Wesley Hunt.

Several of the GOP’s top-spending challengers are running futile campaigns against prominent Democrats in deep blue seats: The Republican opponents of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) spent over $7.5 million each.

In contrast, Democrats’ top-spending challenger is Davis, who dropped $8.3 million so far in her bid for a Central Texas battleground seat. Meanwhile, Roy spent less than $4 million by mid-October.

Seven endangered freshman Democrats have spent over $6 million in their races: Spanberger (Va.), Lucy McBath (Ga.), Xochitl Torres Small (N.M.), Andy Kim (N.J.), Joe Cunningham (S.C.), Elissa Slotkin (Mich.) and Max Rose (N.Y.).

“Money is coming in to those freshmen from all over the country at large levels,” said Nick Langworthy, New York state’s Republican Party chairman. GOP candidates in his state have remained competitive, thanks to outside money, he said, but the disparity is stark. “It’s daunting. It’s daunting.”

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