Dems take swing at Muhammad Ali strategy to keep the House

Dems take swing at Muhammad Ali strategy to keep the House

House Democrats have taken a page from Muhammad Ali and planned a rope-a-dope strategy for the midterm election, hoping it can save their majority.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) decided to let its Republican counterpart outspend it on political ads during the crucial month of September.

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Now the DCCC has a big advantage in cash on hand to counterpunch Republican candidates in October. But will it be too late? TV time will become more expensive and the airwaves will be cluttered with third-party-funded advertising.

There are just over two weeks until the Nov. 2 election.

The Hill 2010 Midterm Election Poll found Republicans leading Democratic candidates in 19 of 22 competitive districts. But 12 of those races were within the margin of error, giving Democrats a chance to claw their way back to the top with a big spending push.

The DCCC spent under $16 million in September on independent expenditures paying for television ads, according to a committee aide.

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spent a total of $17.8 million in September, according to a GOP committee staffer.

At the end of last month, the Republican committee was on the air in 30 districts while Democrats had run ads in 12, according to an analysis of reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

The relatively low amount spent by the Democratic committee in September surprised GOP strategists because it started the month with a big cash advantage.

The DCCC entered September with $39 million in cash on hand, while the National Republican Congressional Committee had $25.6 million.

“The worry always was that the month of September would be really tough on our candidates,” said a House Republican campaign strategist. “Many of them survived and to live another day.”

The strategist said party officials had expected the DCCC to spend on a barrage of ads that would knock Republican candidates down in the polls.

“There’s a big debate as to whether that was a strategic mistake,” said the strategist. “We were expecting them to be spending a lot more and a lot of people are dumbfounded on our side. If you want to put these seats away and really take some of these races off the board, you have to do it early."

The DCCC is planning a big October offensive. It began the month with $41.6 million in cash on hand. The NRCC had $19 million in the bank at the start of this month.

“They’re taking a huge risk in putting everything in October,” said the GOP strategist.

But Democrats see the rope-a-dope strategy as the best way to save their majority. The idea is to let the opposition throw punches until it tires itself out and then respond with force, a tactic Muhammad Ali made famous in his epic October 1974 bout with George Foreman.

A Democratic aide said the DCCC has planned a major counteroffensive for October.

“In the home stretch, the DCCC will have a $60 million program, including at least $40 million of [independent expenditure] TV planned as well as the DCCC’s $20 million voter contact program (coordinated spending and direct GOTV [get-out-the-vote] efforts),” said Ryan Rudominer, the committee’s national press secretary.

Rudominer said the steady stream of television attacks from Republican allies have motivated Democratic donors.

“The DCCC has seen a significant spike in small dollar contributions and individual donations in response to the unprecedented spending by shady Republican outside groups whose funders would financially benefit from Republicans’ big-money special-interest agenda,” he said.

The DCCC used a similar strategy in 2008. The committee spent $13.2 million in independent expenditures on television in September. It started October with $41.3 million in cash on hand.

The committee spent around $60 million in the five weeks before Election Day 2008.

Democratic leaders hope the late barrage will work again this year.

House Republican leaders have pursued a different strategy. They have spent early to create momentum and the sense of a rising tidal wave.

“There are two strategies in play,” said Ron Kaufman, who served as White House political director under President George H.W. Bush. “The Republican strategy is to start early, overly optimistic, believe we can gain control of the House, spend early and create a wave by raising expectations and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“The Democratic strategy is different, either by design or de facto, was to hold off on spending, wait until incumbents go home, have them remind voters why they elected them in the first place. Democrats will outspend Republicans in the close and hope to buy back some seats.”

Paul Lindsay, spokeswoman for the NRCC, said Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) set a high bar early in the election cycle.

“From our perspective, Chairman Sesssions’s goal, when he became chairman, from day one, was to win the majority,” he said. “Our goal was to retire [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.].

“In January 2009, a lot of people thought that was not possible,” he added. “Now, over 80 races are in play, or as many as 90.”

Rick Ridder, a Democratic political consultant who represents several House candidates, said spending money late provides important advantages.

Taking a wait-and-see approach allows the Democratic Party strategists to evaluate which Republican challengers are the most credible in the weeks immediately before the election. Some candidates may collapse without a DCCC air campaign, he said.

Ridder noted that in vote-by-mail states such as Colorado, undecided voters are turning in their ballots later and later in the process. This phenomenon has given Democratic Party strategists incentive to delay their persuasion campaigns.

A Republican strategist, however, said the plan could backfire.

The House campaign strategist noted that TV ad rates tend to cost more in October and the Democratic Party ads will compete with a flood of third-party-funded ads that will clutter the airwaves.

Sean J. Miller and Shane D’Aprile contributed to this report.