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Campaign Spending Trends Reveal GOP and Democratic Strategies

October 16, 2006 at 6:20 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: With Election Day just three weeks away, the national Republican and Democratic parties are facing some tough choices. Both parties raised hundreds of millions of dollars to prepare for these midterm elections. And their House and Senate campaign committees are using the money to fund TV ads, mailings and phone banks on behalf of selected candidates.

There have been some shifts in their spending patterns in recent days that tell us something about where each party thinks its prospects stand. Here to tell us about all this are Jim VandeHei, political correspondent for the Washington Post, and Adam Nagourney, chief political correspondent for the New York Times.

Adam and Jim, welcome.

You have both had stories in recent days that the Republicans in particular are redirecting their spending. Give us the big picture, Jim.

JIM VANDEHEI, Political Reporter, Washington Post: Well, what’s happening here is Republicans are looking at the landscape, and they’re basically pulling back from investing in trying to defeat Democrats. They’ve calculated that maybe there’s one or two Democrats that they can beat, but what they’re saying is that, “We see a wave coming. What we have to do is build shelters around enough incumbents and enough open seats to salvage the 15-seat majority.” Remember, Democrats have to win 15 seats to win back the majority.

MARGARET WARNER: And you’re talking about the House there?

JIM VANDEHEI: Win the House majority. And so what they’re doing is they’re doing every single thing they can to try to make sure that, at the very least, they walk away with a three- or four-seat majority, because the conversation has changed. Republicans, when you’re talking about the House, no longer think that they can win seats. They think they’re going to lose at least six to 12.

The question is: Can they spend enough money and focus that in a narrow amount of markets where they can at least keep maybe a two- or three-seat margin?

MARGARET WARNER: But as part of that, you reported that they have pulled back from some members that they were going to try to protect, kind of writing them off?

JIM VANDEHEI: Oh, absolutely. You see it happening in Ohio in the Senate race. And you also see it happening in a lot of these House races. Look at Indiana, where you have polls showing three Republican incumbents in a lot of trouble, in some cases down double digits. And they’re saying you have to start thinking, you know, can we salvage these districts or do we have to move on and do we have to try to protect these guys, say, in the suburban districts in Pennsylvania?

Re-directing money at closer races

Adam Nagourney
New York Times
But the bottom line is that it's somewhat of what Jim was talking about in the House. In the Senate, the Republicans have to protect, stop the Democrats from gaining six seats.

MARGARET WARNER: Adam, your story today about all of this, the lead of it was, you used the phrase "effectively writing off" Mike DeWine in Ohio. Ken Mehlman, the head of the RNC, said today that was not true. What is going on there?

ADAM NAGOURNEY, Chief Political Correspondent, New York Times: I think what Ken, from reading his statement, what he said today was that, "We weren't writing off Ohio." I think what you'll see over the next couple of days is abundant evidence that DeWine has a really, really tough race against Brown. There's been private polls showing that.

MARGARET WARNER: Sherrod Brown.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Sherrod Brown, I'm sorry, and there's been public polls showing that. And I doubt you'll see the Republican Senate Campaign Committee put any more money in there.

The RNC, the Republican National Committee, had made some commitments to get some more money in there, but my guess is you will see no money beyond what they originally said they were going to do. And I suspect you'll actually see them take some money out.

I think what Mr. Mehlman said was very carefully worded, if you take a look at it. He was talking about Ohio. This is sensitive, because this is such a symbolically important state. Senator DeWine is such a key person, and I think they're concerned about not offending him too much.

But the bottom line is that it's somewhat of what Jim was talking about in the House. In the Senate, the Republicans have to protect, stop the Democrats from gaining six seats. And their strategy had been a firewall of three seats: Ohio, Missouri and Tennessee. And they are looking at polls which show that DeWine is now trailing Brown by as much as 10 points. And that is what their internal polls are showing.

It's just it's not rocket science here. They have to put their money someplace else.

MARGARET WARNER: So where are they going to redirect, if they still have money to spend? If they're not going to protect Mike DeWine, where are they going to redirect it?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: My best guest, informed guess, is they're going to redirect it at races that are closer, which means that probably, almost definitely Virginia, where George Allen unexpectedly is in trouble. That's a Republican state, and their feeling is, if they put some money in there, they can protect it.

The other place to watch, which is interesting, although I think some of this is just chess match stuff, is New Jersey, where a Democrat, Bob Menendez, seem to be in trouble, and the Republicans put in $500,000 to do some advertising to see how effective is.

But, Margaret, that's a very expensive state. It's like $2.5 million a week to do advertising. And I think it's a bit of a long shot that they'll try to go after Menendez there. But on the other hand, we'll see what happens after the $500,000.

Controlling Senate

Jim Vandehei
Washington Post
Republicans are genuinely now worried that they could lose control of the Senate. It would be hard, because Democrats would have to run the table. They'd have to win states like Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Ohio.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Jim, more on the Senate. What are the parties' calculations, both the Republicans and the Democrats -- they probably don't share completely -- about how many seats are probably lost to the Republicans and where the opportunities lie for the Republicans to still hold on?

JIM VANDEHEI: Republicans are genuinely now worried that they could lose control of the Senate. It would be hard, because Democrats would have to run the table. They'd have to win states like Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Ohio. You have to win in Tennessee. You have to win in Missouri, and then even in Virginia.

But what's interesting here is you have the Republican National Committee, which is effectively controlled by the Bush White House, and what they don't want is to end up after Election Day having Democrats in control of both chambers, so the RNC is directing almost all of its money now at the Senate races. And what they're doing is, at the very least, let's keep it so we at least have a two-seat majority.

And that's why you see them -- Adam's right. His reporting is dead-on, as far as them moving money out of Ohio, because they have to put that into Virginia, which that race is much tougher now than anybody thought it would be three months ago.

And they also have to try to protect Tennessee, which, you know, early on, six months ago, a lot of people thought that was a Democratic long shot, but now you have Harold Ford, Jr., who is a young African-American congressman, who's doing really well in rural areas. And he's really -- he's spooking Republicans.

And that's why you have to move that money. They have a lot of money, but there's a finite amount of money.

MARGARET WARNER: Adam, do you agree that it's not only that they're making calculations among different Senate candidates or different House candidates, but also that, if the Republicans are going to save one chamber, it's going to be the Senate?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Yes, I think it's a very smart point. I do think that's true. And one of the Republicans I was speaking to yesterday about this said, you know, "It's not a matter of Mike DeWine, or Lincoln Chafee, or just individual senators. It is a matter for us of making sure that we protect the majority of the Senate, because if it looks like we're going to lose the House, we have to protect the majority of the Senate."

And it's very pragmatic and, you know, to some extent, it's cold calculations to people like Senator DeWine, who have been around for a long time, but they've got to look at the field and figure out, "Where can we most effectively spend our money to make sure that, come November 7th, we have, you know, a margin, as Jim said, of at least two seats?"

Gains from opponents reputation

Adam Nagourney
New York Times
I'm not sure at this point whether or not the [Democrats will] expand. I know they're looking at seats and they're doing polling this week to figure out whether they'll go to some places like California.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Jim, let's switch to the House in our few remaining minutes. What do the Republicans think -- where do they think things really stand there? I noticed that there both parties are essentially putting money into the same 30 to 35 seats.

JIM VANDEHEI: They are, but there's a very interesting debate going on now inside the Democratic Party about whether they try to take that money and invest in seats that did not look that competitive. You look out to places like...

MARGARET WARNER: The 50-state strategy as some were talking about.

JIM VANDEHEI: Right. You look into Colorado, you look into Wyoming, seats that nobody thought would be competitive, but because the environment is so rotten for Republicans, a lot of Democrats are saying, "Listen, if we invest enough money and throw some television advertising at these candidates, maybe, maybe we can win 40 seats or maybe we can open up seats that nobody ever thought was even fathomable early on."

And, you know, that's extraordinary, if you think about sort of how this thing has unfolded, because the way the map has been sort of rigged, if you will, by gerrymandering and the redistricting process, nobody thought that you could have that many seats in play.

And so what's happening right now, though, is that Democrats know that they have only a limited amount of money, much less money than Republicans, and they want to make sure, "Can we get the 15?" Once they know that they can get to those 15 seats, which would give them the majority, then they feel like, "OK, maybe we can get a little risky now. Maybe we can take some of that money and gamble on seats that nobody thought we could possibly win."

MARGARET WARNER: So, Adam, where do Democrats think they are in getting to that 15? And do you think they're going to expand the field?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: I'm not sure on the latter. I think that right now they think they're at about 11, maybe a little bit higher. And Foley, the whole scandal with Mark Foley, has definitely put a lot more Democrats in play.

I'm not sure at this point whether or not they'll expand. I know they're looking at seats and they're doing polling this week to figure out whether they'll go to some places like California.

Negative ads

Jim Vandehei
Washington Post
And it's very negative in almost every case. That's what people think works, particularly when you're trying to beat an incumbent or when you're trying to win a seat that's tough to win.

MARGARET WARNER: And, quickly, do the Republicans also privately think that some 11 seats are gone for them?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Yes, I think the answer to that question is yes. The question is whether they can stop it from going over 15. But I think right now the feeling is, if the election were held today, Democrats was gain at least 11 seats.

One quick caveat, if I could. One thing you need to watch is a lot of these races right now, House races, Democrats are ahead by one or two points. If it remains at one or two points, the turnout operation, which Republicans correctly boast about -- I think it really is really good -- can make the difference of pulling Republicans back. But if they keep widening, and some of these races are -- they seem to be widening -- then Democrats are going to be in very strong positions. And then they will be able to start expanding to the 30 or 40 seats that Jim was talking about.

MARGARET WARNER: And quick, final word from you, Jim, fair to say most of this party money is spent on ads and most of it's negative ads?

JIM VANDEHEI: Ads and mailing. And it's very negative in almost every case. That's what people think works, particularly when you're trying to beat an incumbent or when you're trying to win a seat that's tough to win.

MARGARET WARNER: Jim VandeHei, Adam Nagourney, thank you both.