Republicans blast party's strategy for keeping House majority

The House GOP’s campaign arm is coming under criticism from fellow Republicans who say the group is making serious strategic errors that could cost the party a significant number of congressional seats in November. 

Two former top National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) officials, who requested anonymity to speak candidly with The Hill, expressed frustration with the NRCC for essentially going off the airwaves in August. They also raised questions about the allocation of funds in districts that they consider a lost cause.

“It’s a dereliction of duty for a congressional committee to not be on air in August,” said one former senior staffer. “Republicans are in real danger of losing the majority, and it seems that the NRCC is asleep at the switch.”

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The criticism underscores GOP tensions heading into the midterm elections, when the incumbent president’s party traditionally loses congressional seats. Election handicappers are giving Democrats favorable odds of winning back the House, with FiveThirtyEight saying there’s a 73 percent chance Democrats will take control of the chamber. 

Republican critics of the NRCC’s approach said the strategy of waiting to go big in September will be too little too late for many House Republicans.

The NRCC did not place any independent ads for November races in August and does not have anything booked for the rest of the month. However, the group spent heavily to eke out a victory in this month’s House special election in Ohio, and it coordinated with GOP campaigns in three districts on smaller joint ad buys.

A NRCC official explained the group’s strategy to The Hill, emphasizing that it placed its largest-ever initial reservation for airtime in April at a cost of more than $60 million.

More than $30 million of those funds are ready to go in September, when some strategists say undecided votes will be paying closer attention to the midterms and forming their final decisions.

The NRCC official said the group rarely spends ad money in August. However, almost $1 million was used to go after vulnerable Democrats in August 2014, a year when Republicans gained 13 seats and increased their majority in the House.

Still, the party official said the NRCC took into account spending from outside Republican groups when it decided to keep its powder dry through the end of August.

“I don’t think the criticism [of the NRCC] is justified,” said GOP strategist Karl Rove. “There are limits to how much money is available. Not everybody needs to be talking at once. Outside groups are spending heavily in August; the NRCC independent expenditures can follow-on in September. This is like playing bridge; everyone watches what their allies are doing and adjust accordingly.”

Recent activity by the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), an outside group aligned with Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanThe Hill's 12:30 Report – Cohen says Trump knew payments were wrong | GOP in turmoil over Trump shutdown threat | Kyl to resign from Senate at year's end Trump leaves GOP in turmoil with shutdown looming Senate heads toward floor fight on criminal justice bill MORE (R-Wis.), support Rove’s comments.

CLF has been blanketing the airwaves, and the group’s busy month was underscored by what it deemed an “August surprise” — an almost $10 million rollout of ads targeting Democrats in 14 congressional districts.

“When CLF made clear they’d be doing a lot of spending in August, the thought was that it doesn’t make sense to double up, that we’d marshal our resources for the fall,” the NRCC official said. “We were the largest spenders in several special elections and put a lot of money upfront. We don’t normally spend in August and this gave us a reason not to deviate.”

The CLF has also been reacting to daily news events, releasing ads targeting Minnesota Democrats over allegations of domestic abuse against Rep. Keith EllisonKeith Maurice EllisonIlhan Omar calls her election to Congress a rejection of ‘religious bigotry’ Minnesota New Members 2019 White candidates are never asked how they win minority-majority districts, says first Muslim congresswoman-elect MORE (D-Minn.) and seeking to capitalize in New York districts on a recent remark by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) that “America never was that great.”

“Defending the majority is a team effort and we’re proud to have the NRCC as an ally,” said Courtney Alexander, communications director for CLF. “They should be commended for the outstanding work they’ve done over the last year-and-a-half to put Republicans in position to defy history and keep the House.”

Still, GOP critics note that both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the House Majority PAC, an outside Democratic group, are on the air at the same time this month attacking Republican candidates.

The DCCC purchased more than $500,000 in ads this month in four congressional districts, not counting the House special election in Ohio.

On Tuesday, the House Majority PAC launched a $200,000 ad buy against Rep. David YoungDavid Edmund YoungIowa New Members 2019 McCarthy defeats Jordan for minority leader in 159-to-43 vote Dem Axne beats GOP Rep. Young in Iowa MORE (R-Iowa). Young is one of the three candidates the NRCC worked with this month for a joint ad buy, but those coordinated purchases were capped at $100,000.

The House Majority PAC on Tuesday also launched an ad campaign against Rep. Steve Knight (R-Calif.), an effort with more than $430,000 behind it.

“It’s really incomprehensible that it’s the end of August and the NRCC independent expenditures still aren't up on the air for November races,” said a second former top NRCC official. “The closer you get to Election Day, prices rise and the ability to break through with a message declines. That is why it is so crucial to be out there now putting Democrats on defense and setting the narrative early.”

“From the outside, it sure looks like the NRCC is playing not to lose, rather than playing to win,” the former official said. “The irony is that is exactly how you lose.”

Democrats have the wind at their back as they look to flip the 23 seats they need to win a majority in the House.

Polls show Democrats have the advantage when it comes to voter enthusiasm — a phenomenon that has played out in street protests and marches that began with Trump’s inauguration.

Democrats also lead the generic congressional ballot and have been running competitively with GOP candidates in House special elections in districts once considered safely Republican.

Meanwhile, many Republicans are concerned that President TrumpDonald John TrumpAustralia recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli capital, won't move embassy Mulvaney will stay on as White House budget chief Trump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law MORE, whose approval rating is historically low for a first-term president, will be a drag on the party in November. Complicating matters is the fact that dozens of House GOP lawmakers are retiring or seeking other office rather than running for reelection.

Strategists acknowledged that the NRCC is in a tough spot this cycle with so many newly competitive seats. The House campaign arm is competing for cash and airtime with big-spending outside groups, like CLF, and using resources in expensive media markets such as Los Angeles, Denver, Philadelphia, Miami, Las Vegas, Houston and the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

In previous election cycles, the NRCC’s early spending was typically in smaller markets like Lexington, Ky., and South Bend, Ind. When the group went after Democrats with August ad buys in 2014, it was in places like rural Arizona or Augusta, Ga.

But the former NRCC officials who criticized the NRCC expressed frustration with some of the group’s allocations, saying they’re throwing money after candidates who are too far gone to help.

Among those candidates, they said, is Rep. Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockTrump attorney general pick a prolific donor to GOP candidates, groups: report Virginia New Members 2019 Defeated Republicans mocked by Trump fire back at president MORE (R-Va.), on whom the NRCC is spending millions to protect. The Cook Political Report has Comstock’s race rated “lean Democratic,” and a Monmouth University poll in June showed Comstock trailing her Democratic opponent, Jennifer Wexton, by 10 points.

The NRCC, however, is unapologetic in its defense of Comstock.

“Barbara Comstock is going to win, period,” said NRCC spokesman Matt Gorman.

There are also districts where some strategists say the NRCC should be more involved. The CLF is up with ads in four California districts, for instance, while the NRCC has placed ads in two districts there.

An NRCC official hinted that more California ad buys could be coming soon, saying the group wanted to wait and see the results of several primaries in June.

“The map dictates the budget and timing,” said former NRCC executive director Rob Simms. “This map this year is very difficult for the House and particularly in those media markets for several of the open seats as well as media markets they're going to be defending.”

Reid Wilson contributed