DSCC must decide where to cut losses as tough races add up

Democratic leaders face tough decisions on how much to spend on the campaigns of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and other party candidates whose chances for winning in November seem dim.

Money that goes to Lincoln rather than Democrats thought to have better odds at the polls may be seen as wasted. And it could upset one of the party’s biggest financial supporters, labor unions, which spent millions in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat her in the primary.

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Four public polls this month showed the two-term incumbent, who chairs the Agriculture Committee, trailing her Republican challenger by an average of more than 20 points.

Where to prioritize Lincoln’s race is one of several difficult decisions Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) has to make to fend off an anticipated anti-incumbent wave in November.

Democratic strategists say Menendez will have to look past his relationships with colleagues and focus the committee’s money where it is likely to have the biggest impact.

“In a year like this, you have to be really hard-nosed,” said Tad Devine, a Washington-based Democratic consultant. “You have to make decisions on the basis of hard data and not personal relationships.”

Menendez must decide, for instance, whether to pour funds into California to help another chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), who heads the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Democratic strategists describe California, a huge state with expensive media markets, as a potential black hole for campaign funds. A single race there can involve enough money to make a difference in several smaller states. Polls show Boxer up by an average of five points.

A senior Democratic aide said Menendez would limit the money he spends in Arkansas but would not hold back in California.

“Lincoln won’t get millions and millions of dollars, but she’ll get more than a token,” said the aide. “She might get more if she tightens up the race.

“We’ll spend on Boxer,” the aide added. “She’ll get the money she needs. A Republican senator from Arkansas? We can deal with that. A Republican senator from California? That’s not going to happen.”

Florida presents another tricky question. If Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) wins the Democratic primary, African-American constituents will likely press the party to spend generously on his behalf, even though Meek trails two general-election opponents by wide margins.

Menendez declined to say how much he would commit to Arkansas and other battlegrounds. He said decisions would depend on how those races play out.

“I don’t telegraph how I’m going to spend my money across the political landscape,” he said. “We’re going to look at the map and be flexible. Our goal is not only to have a Democratic majority but to make it as robust as possible. That’s how we’re going to decide.”

Added DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz: “We are going to have the resources we need to wage competitive campaigns in each of our targeted states.”

The Lincoln campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Robert McLarty, a Democratic strategist in Arkansas who is helping Lincoln’s campaign, expressed confidence the party committee would not abandon her race.

“The DSCC is going to be looking at this race,” he said. “The internal polls have this race a lot closer than the public polls.

“If this race tightens, I expect them to put in the resources,” he added, noting that Lincoln had just won a bitterly contested primary and was putting her skills as a retail campaigner to work.

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Lincoln reported $1.9 million in her campaign coffers at the end of June, while her opponent, Rep. John Boozman (Ark.), had $483,000.

There are a slew of competitive races vying for party Democratic Party resources.

Democratic candidate Alexi Giannoulias has a one-point lead on Rep. Mark Kirk (R) in Illinois’s Senate race. Secretary of State Robin Carnahan trails Rep. Roy Blunt (R) by an average of four points in Missouri’s Senate race. And polls show Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher in a dead heat with former Rep. Rob Portman (R) in Ohio’s Senate race.

Ohio nevertheless poses a challenge to Menendez because Portman reported $8.9 million in cash on hand at the end of June, compared to Fisher, who had only $1.3 million.

Other vulnerable incumbents include Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“In this environment, I don’t think there is a political operative in the world that envies Bob Menendez,” said David Di Martino, a Democratic strategist and former DSCC aide.

“There are scarce resources, difficult races and every dollar is going to matter,” he said. “It’s difficult to say if the dollar is better spent in one state or another.

“You never have the war chest to do every thing you want to do, and it’s even more difficult in this environment,” he said.

Political experts note that an anti-incumbent wave will affect Republicans too, pointing to Sen. Bob Bennett’s loss in Utah’s GOP primary.

Democratic strategists also note the DSCC has more money than the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and that many Democratic candidates have more cash in their war chests than do Republican opponents. The DSCC reported $21.6 million compared to the NRSC’s $19.7 million at the end of June.

Murray reported $6.8 million in cash compared to GOP candidate Dino Rossi’s $1.3 million. Reid reported $8.9 million in his campaign coffers, while opponent Sharron Angle had $1.8 million at the end of June.

NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) warned Republican colleagues at a meeting Tuesday that Democrats would outspend GOP candidates but Republicans would be helped by voters’ anger at incumbents.

Cornyn said that swelling wave leaves Menendez with a lot of ground to defend.

“They have some pretty tough decisions, and I think they’re back on their heels in this environment,” he said.

But Cornyn admitted he has his own spending challenges, including whether to pour money into California, a staunchly pro-Democratic state in federal elections. Another puzzle is Nevada.

“We’re going to have our own challenges, too,” he said. “We’re 90 days out from the election, and we’ve seen this landscape bob and weave and change.

“We’ll make those calls late,” he added. “Probably not before September, maybe even later than that.”

This article was updated at 10:01 a.m. It initially contained incorrect information about the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's cash on hand.