Strategists second-guess Dem spending strategy after losses in House

Democrats spent more than $65 million on television, radio and direct-mail advertising in 77 congressional districts, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and then lost two-thirds of those races.

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), meanwhile, spent about $46 million on independent expenditure advertising. It won 52 out of 66 races where it made those expenditures, according to a spokesman.

The bulk of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) spending came in October, when it pumped money into about 50 congressional races.

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Aware of the building GOP wave, Democrats had sought to husband their resources so they could blanket the airwaves in defense of their members.

Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) explained his party’s “firewall” strategy early last month. Republicans are “going to try and run the table, but they’re going to run into a hard wall of reality that a lot of these members are in very strong positions,” Van Hollen told The Associated Press.

Some Democratic consultants are questioning that strategy and wondering whether the committee should have focused its resources on holding, say, a dozen competitive seats instead of spreading itself thin across so many districts.

Moreover, the DCCC only spent money in 27 districts in September, according to Federal Election Commission filings. A more robust expenditure early on may have helped stem the rising Republican tide, some consultants have grumbled. The consultants wished to stay anonymous in order to preserve ties to the party.

In Alabama’s 2nd district toss-up race, for instance, the DCCC spent $1,411,243.95 opposing Republican Martha Roby’s candidacy, according to the Sunlight Foundation, an independent group that tracks campaign spending. It added another $233,000 for its field operation, according to the DCCC, which meant it spent about $650,000 more than the NRCC. But it wasn’t enough — freshman Rep. Bobby Bright (D) lost, albeit by fewer than 5,000 votes.

DCCC officials defended their spending decisions.

“The DCCC spent its resources wisely so that it had the ability to defend seats that came on the radar late,” said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for the committee. “Had we not had that flexibility, a horrible night would have been worse.”

But the next head of the committee will need to take a long look at how the millions in independent expenditure funds were spent.

The leader of the Democratic Caucus picks the head of the DCCC, so that decision will be made after the party selects its minority leader, who is likely to be current Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). The two names being mentioned for DCCC head are Reps. Steve Israel (N.Y.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.).

The party will also have to evaluate its 2010 spending in order to help plan for 2012. With Republicans winning at least 60 House seats this cycle, the Democrats will find themselves in a similar spot next cycle — having to decide between spreading themselves across several districts or concentrating on a few competitive races.

In the weeks leading up to the 2010 election, it seemed frustration was building at the House campaign headquarters.

By late October, the Republican wave was threatening even longtime Democratic incumbents. During an Oct. 21 breakfast with reporters, Van Hollen admitted some members ignored his warnings and didn’t “fully prepare” for the campaign season.

“There are a few members who we approached many, many, many months ago to tell them to get their act together, who did not take that advice,” Van Hollen said. “We’re obviously working very closely now to try and protect even those who did not fully prepare themselves.”

The DCCC was forced to make last-minute investments in normally safe districts. For instance, it spent almost $1.1 million to help two-term Rep. Phil Hare (Ill.), who ended up losing to Republican Bobby Schilling. Hare did not face a Republican opponent in 2008.

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The committee also spent almost $200,000 to protect Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D), who was facing a backlash after calling for a boycott of his state in light of its controversial immigration law. Grijalva ended up winning.

And the DCCC spent last-minute cash to protect Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly (D), who eked out a narrow win over two-time challenger Keith Fimian (R).

One observer pointed to those two races as a sign the DCCC spent wisely.

“They obviously did the right thing in those races,” said Martin Frost, a former Texas congressman and one-time head of the House Democratic Caucus.

“They did the best job they could,” he said. “They picked out people they thought needed help and tried to help them.

“You could always second-guess this after the fact. They put a lot of money into a number of different races, and I think that made sense,” he said. “I think trying to help as many members as possible was the right strategy.”

-- This story was updated at 8:07 a.m.

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