By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on April 4, 2018
The House GOP’s campaign arm is facing tough choices about where to shift precious resources in the midterm elections, as Republicans desperately try to stave off a potential blue wave this November.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) must decide how much focus should be placed on competitive and Democratic-leaning districts that Hillary Clinton carried — or if the party should put more energy into protecting solid GOP seats that could be in danger if a wave materializes this fall.
“Not every seat is created equal. ... Ultimately, you have to decide what is the best path to holding the majority,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist based in Texas. “You’re dealing with a chess board that has 30 or 40 pieces on it, and you’re trying to figure out how to get from here to there.”
“It’s a judgment call both sides have to make,” he added. “And it’s challenging.”
Republicans are bracing for tough midterm elections, with anxiety running high over whether anti-Trump sentiment could hurt the GOP at the polls.
The GOP election strategy has been further scrambled by Democrat Conor Lamb’s upset victory in a Pennsylvania special election last month, which suggested the GOP could even be vulnerable in areas of the country where Trump was strong in 2016.
Historically, the president’s party loses about 32 seats on average during the midterms. Democrats will win back the majority if they flip a net 23 seats.
There are nearly two dozen Republicans running in races that are currently rated as toss-ups, including Reps. Leonard Lance (N.J.), Claudia Tenney (N.Y.), Rod Blum (Iowa), Carlos Curbelo (Fla.), John Culberson (Texas), Jeff Denham (Calif.), Barbara Comstock (Va.), Erik Paulsen (Minn.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.).
Meanwhile, there are more than a dozen other races where Republicans have an advantage but the seats are still considered competitive. That list includes some lawmakers who were outraised by their Democratic challengers in the last quarter of 2017, including Reps. Mia Love (Utah), Steve Chabot (Ohio), Mimi Walters (Calif.) and Dave Brat (Va.).
Following Lamb’s upset victory over Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone, the Cook Political Report changed 10 race ratings toward Democrats, illustrating how an already difficult playing field could become even more treacherous.
Three “lean Republican” seats were shifted into the “toss-up” column, while three “likely Democratic” seats moved to solidly blue.
Rep. Ryan Costello’s (R-Pa.) decision to retire last week after a court-ordered redistricting made his reelection more challenging prompted the Cook Political Report to move his suburban Philadelphia seat from “toss-up” to “lean Democratic.”
“The move deprives Republicans of a well-liked incumbent with $1.3 million in the bank … and puts Democrat Chrissy Houlahan in the driver’s seat to take over a very favorably redrawn seat,” wrote David Wasserman, Cook’s House editor.
The NRCC will have to decide in the months ahead whether it’s worth pouring large sums of cash into Democratic-likely and -leaning seats like Costello’s, or if the party is better served trying to save Republican-leaning seats and defending GOP incumbents in competitive races.
“They want to spend their precious dollars as productively and efficiently as possible,” Mackowiak said. “They have a pretty good idea of the top 10 or 15 races. The question: what’s the second 15?”
Incumbents tend to get priority, but a whole host of other factors go into the decisionmaking process. That includes who the Democratic opponent is in a race, what the dynamic is like in the district, whether the candidate is running a good campaign, the resources the party has, how much it costs to advertise in the district and the overall political environment.
“First and foremost, the job of the party committees is to protect incumbents,” said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
But, he added, “there are hundreds of factors. It varies in exact science, and it’s very fluid.”
Many of these choices may not be made until around Labor Day, ahead of the two-month sprint toward the finish line in November. Plus, there could be more changes to race ratings coming down the pike — another factor that could influence the NRCC’s strategy.
At some point, the House GOP’s campaign arm may even have to cut certain Republican candidates loose in order to shift limited party resources elsewhere, although those types of tough decisions may not come until late in the election cycle.
A candidate’s own fundraising can also guide where the NRCC chooses to invest.
“You can try to drag a candidate across the finish line, but if they’re not running on their own, that job is very, very difficult to achieve,” Heye said. “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”
After Lamb outspent Saccone 5-to-1, Republican leaders warned lawmakers not to rest on their laurels when it comes to fundraising.
“If you’re getting outraised, this is a wake-up call. Prepare to bear down,” Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), the NRCC’s chairman, told rank-and-file Republicans during a private meeting last month, according to a source in the room.
The biggest concern for party leaders, however, is not moderate lawmakers facing competitive races — it’s the entrenched Republicans who have never seen a real fight before.
“Leadership has been really clear to their members about not taking anything for granted,” Heye said. “That’s where people get caught by surprise.”
Fifty-four Democratic challengers outraised 43 GOP incumbents in the last quarter of 2017, according to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), a figure that has further stepped up anxiety among Republicans fighting to keep the House.
That follows on reports that 35 Republican incumbents were outraised in the third quarter of last year.
“Democratic candidates across the country are out-hustling and out-organizing Republican incumbents, many of whom have not faced a competitive challenge in a very long time and are struggling to find those old campaign muscles,” Tyler Law, a spokesman for the DCCC, said in a statement.
Those numbers may also ramp up pressure on Republicans in the safest districts to start ponying up more money for their party.
In an encouraging sign, the NRCC hauled in a record-breaking $32 million at its annual March dinner, where Trump took the stage this year.
The committee had $54 million in cash on hand at the end of February, while the DCCC had $49 million on hand.
But some of the GOP’s donors may feel more inclined to contribute money to candidates in the Senate, where the map is far more favorable to Republicans. Ten Democratic senators are running for reelection in states that Trump won, offering the GOP several opportunities for offense.
“We’ve seen the value of one Senate seat,” said Mackowiak, pointing to the Senate’s failure to repeal ObamaCare. “So what you might see is Dem donors focus on the House, and Republican donors focus on the Senate.