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Democrats, GOP fighting over largest House battlefield in a decade

Democrats, GOP fighting over largest House battlefield in a decade

by REID WILSON | The Hill  |  Published on October 21, 2020

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Democrats and Republicans battling for control of the House are bombarding television sets across the nation with hundreds of millions of dollars in paid advertising in the closing weeks before Election Day, across what strategists say is the broadest playing field in a decade.

The four most prominent groups paying for advertising in House races are targeting 31 seats held by Democratic incumbents and 30 seats held by Republicans, according to the nonpartisan firm Advertising Analytics. Those seats stretch from the Alaskan tundra to the beaches of South Florida, from Orange County to rural Maine and seemingly everywhere in between.

“The Democrats wiped us out in areas that have been trending against us but are still friendly terrain for Republicans. They’re defending 31 seats that President Trump won in 2016. That’s a big battlefield,” said Rob Simms, a former executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The advertising onslaught is being funded by wealthy donors and small-dollar givers alike, who have funneled an unprecedented amount of money into campaign coffers and outside groups.

Just this week, the four largest of those groups — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the allied House Majority PAC, and the National Republican Congressional Committee and its ally the Congressional Leadership Fund — will spend $66 million on television spots.

“We started the cycle with over 30 seats that Democrats represent that Trump won in 2016, and I think that a lot of folks assumed that is where all the action would be,” said Abby Horrell, who heads the House Majority PAC. “Republicans are playing in a lot of seats that they did not think that they were going to have to worry about defending. I think they find themselves in a much more difficult position.”

Arizona, where the airwaves are already crowded with advertising for and against President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, is a microcosm of broader national trends, in which Democrats are targeting suburban districts and playing defense in more rural areas.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent almost $2.5 million since Sept. 1 targeting Rep. David Schweikert (R), who represents a district that stretches from Scottsdale to Glendale, north of Phoenix. Trump won the district by 10 points four years ago, but a recent survey found Trump leading Biden by just 1 percentage point. The same survey showed Schweikert leading physician Hiral Tipirneni (D) by 3 points.

Democrats have spent $3.7 million defending Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D), who represents a sprawling district that reaches from the Four Corners to the Phoenix suburbs. Republicans have dropped $1 million on behalf of their candidate, attorney Tiffany Shedd, in a district Trump narrowly carried in 2016.

That pattern is evident in a tumultuous cycle in which Republicans have found their standing diminished in suburban districts, even those where they survived in 2018. Republican groups are spending heavily to defend seats being vacated by retiring Reps. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.), Kenny Marchant (R-Texas), Pete Olson (R-Texas) and Pete King (R-N.Y.).

Some veteran Republicans are facing significant challenges unlike any they are used to. Democrats have spent millions against Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) and Don Young (R-Alaska).

At the same time, Republicans smell an opportunity to win several seats they have not held for generations, if ever. The Congressional Leadership Fund is running ads in Rep. Peter DeFazio’s (D) rural southwestern Oregon district and in Rep. Ron Kind’s (D) western Wisconsin district.

The GOP has reserved more than $6 million, one of its largest commitments to date, in television airtime aimed at Rep. Collin Peterson (D), who holds a rural Minnesota district that backed Trump by 30 points in 2016. Peterson, who won his seat in 1990, faces former Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach (R) in November.

If the scope of the battlefield is broader than any since 2010, the scale of the spending is larger than any cycle ever. The two parties have committed a combined $10 million or more to television ads in 10 races. Democrats have blocked off more than $5 million in airtime in each of a dozen seats, and Republicans have reserved more than that in nine seats.

The heart of the battlefield remains suburban districts that Democrats won in the 2018 midterm elections, or where Republicans narrowly held on.

No one has been under the microscope more than Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D) and her rival, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez (R). The two parties have dropped a combined $15 million on their respective nominees.

In New York, Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D) and ex-Rep. Claudia Tenney (R) have been the subjects of $14.4 million in combined spending. And in California, Rep. Mike Garcia (R) and Assemblywoman Christy Smith (D) have faced a combined $13.6 million onslaught in a rematch of their May 12 showdown.

But veterans of previous election contests say the amount of money available, to both candidates and outside groups, is funding ad blitzes in districts that have long been tantalizing but where competitive races have not materialized for one reason or another — districts like King’s and Rep. Lee Zeldin’s (R) in New York, or DeFazio’s in Oregon and Kind’s in Wisconsin.

“Money is the biggest factor. If you have money — the committees and candidates — you can go places you wouldn’t otherwise think about,” Simms said.

Candidates for Congress raised a whopping $433 million in the third quarter of the year, a review of Federal Election Commission filings shows. Since the beginning of 2019, those candidates have combined to raise $1.3 billion. The two party committees have raised almost $450 million between them, and the two super PACs have added about $225 million more.

“We have very strong Democratic candidates running really smart, effective campaigns and they’re raising phenomenal resources with which to communicate their message to voters,” Horrell said. “It enables more flexibility when looking at the map, and it allows the Democratic candidates themselves to share their message with voters.”

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