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House battlefield expands as ad wars hit new peak

House battlefield expands as ad wars hit new peak
© The Hill photo illustration

Voters across the country are being deluged by an onslaught of television advertising as candidates and big-spending outside groups dump millions of dollars on a growing battleground that stretches from the North Maine Woods to the posh suburbs of San Diego.

The two sides and their outside allies have already spent or reserved nearly a half-billion dollars in television time in the fight over control of the House of Representatives, according to data compiled by several Democratic and Republican sources watching the media landscape.

This week alone, candidates and outside groups are spending more than $63 million on television airtime in 51 districts across the country.

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The four outside groups spending the most on television advertising — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the House Majority PAC on the left, as well as the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and the Congressional Leadership Fund on the right — are spending more than $24 million on commercials in 46 districts.

“What’s happening right now is for the first time this cycle, we’re spending even with the Republicans,” said Charlie Kelly, who heads the House Majority PAC. “Democrats have been running even or have an advantage on the air in most of the top 25 or 30 competitive districts.”

Democrats, who need to pick up a net of 23 Republican-held seats to reclaim the Speaker’s gavel, are on offense in the vast majority of those districts. Of the 32 districts where the DCCC is spending money this week, only five are held by a Democratic incumbent.

Democrats have expanded their advertising spending to some districts where the party has rarely competed in recent years, a sign that the party feels ambitious after public and private polling that shows President TrumpDonald TrumpClinton, Bush, Obama reflect on peaceful transition of power on Biden's Inauguration Day Arizona Republican's brothers say he is 'at least partially to blame' for Capitol violence Biden reverses Trump's freeze on .4 billion in funds MORE is deeply unpopular and voters want Congress to act as a check. 

“We knew all along that we wanted to build a massive battlefield, toward the goal of stretching the Republicans financially,” said Meredith Kelly, a DCCC spokeswoman. She said Democrats expected Republicans to have a spending edge, but “we wanted that advantage to be diluted in as many districts as possible.”

The DCCC is spending $307,000 this week in Kansas, where Rep. Lynn JenkinsLynn Haag JenkinsBottom line Former GOP Rep. Costello launches lobbying shop Kansas Republican dropping Senate bid to challenge GOP rep MORE (R) is retiring. They are spending a combined $400,000 in Michigan on seats held by Rep. Mike Bishop (R) and retiring Rep. Dave TrottDavid Alan TrottFormer GOP Michigan congressman says Trump is unfit for office Pro-Trump Republican immigrant to challenge Dem lawmaker who flipped Michigan seat Meet the lawmakers putting politics aside to save our climate MORE (R). And the party is spending nearly a quarter-million dollars in a southern New Mexico district held by Rep. Steve PearceStevan (Steve) Edward PearceNew Mexico Democrat releases final Spanish-language ad in toss-up race Five Latinas who could be Biden's running mate New Mexico Dems brace for crowded race to succeed Udall MORE (R), who is running for governor.

Democrats are also taking advantage of federal election law that allows the committee to spend a limited amount of money in coordination with candidates and their campaigns. The party is on air with coordinated ads in 17 districts ranging from California’s Central Valley and the Los Angeles area to south Florida.

The NRCC, meanwhile, has prioritized spending on seats where potentially vulnerable incumbents face tough reelection fights. The House Republican campaign arm is spending in 21 districts, 15 of which feature incumbents seeking reelection.

“First and foremost, we protect our members, and that’s reflected in our strategy. We’re a member-driven organization, and our first priority is that we do everything that we can on behalf of our members,” said Matt Gorman, an NRCC spokesman.

The NRCC is on offense in Minnesota, where Reps. Tim WalzTim WalzMinnesota governor to deploy National Guard to protect state capitol ahead of inauguration Eight governors call on feds to immediately send out vaccine doses now in reserve Minnesota bar vows to stay open despite lawsuit, ban on indoor dining MORE (D) and Rick NolanRichard (Rick) Michael NolanMinnesota Rep. Pete Stauber glides to victory in GOP primary Hold off on anti-mining hysteria until the facts are in Minnesota New Members 2019 MORE (D) both vacated rural House districts to run for state office, and in the northern Las Vegas district where former Reps. Cresent Hardy (R) and Steven HorsfordSteven Alexander HorsfordNevada Democrat Steven Horsford wins reelection The robbing of a wildlife refuge in Nevada Rep. Steven Horsford wins Democratic House primary in Nevada MORE (D) are both staging comeback bids. Republicans are also spending on seats being vacated by Pearce and Reps. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyCindy McCain on possible GOP censure: 'I think I'm going to make T-shirts' Arizona state GOP moves to censure Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed MORE (R-Ariz.) and Dave ReichertDavid (Dave) George ReichertRep. Kim Schrier defends Washington House seat from GOP challenger Washington Rep. Kim Schrier wins primary Mail ballot surge places Postal Service under spotlight MORE (R-Wash.).

Republicans have already moved to cut off funding for several incumbents they believe cannot win reelection in November. Last week, the party pulled out of the Pittsburgh media market, a reflection of polls showing Rep. Keith RothfusKeith James RothfusConor Lamb defeats Trump-backed challenger for reelection in Pennsylvania CNN's Tapper tried to talk GOP candidate out of running against Democratic incumbent: report Lobbying world MORE (R) trailing Rep. Conor Lamb (D).

But some of the most expensive races are still on both parties’ priorities list. In the Washington suburbs, Democrats are spending $603,000 against Rep. Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockFormer GOP congresswoman calls on Republicans to back impeachment 22 retired GOP members of Congress call for Trump's impeachment Former GOP congressman calls for Biden to receive presidential briefings MORE (R-Va.) this week. Republicans are spending $532,000, reflecting a race in which internal polls on both sides have the fight closer than public surveys that show state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D) ahead.

The Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), a super PAC that has collected more than $100 million in contributions this cycle, is spending $9 million of that haul this week alone, spread across 30 districts. 

The group’s single biggest target is Nolan’s seat in Minnesota’s Iron Range, a district President Trump won by nearly 16 points. CLF is spending $862,000 on television ads aimed at boosting St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber (R) over former state Rep. Joe Radinovich (D).

“CLF has been aggressive in defining Democratic candidates and putting them on defense, forcing them to respond and setting the terms of these races,” said Courtney Alexander, a spokeswoman for the group.

The House Majority PAC, the largest outside group boosting Democrats, has raised about half as much as its Republican counterpart. The Democratic group is spending $1.2 million in six districts this week, most of it in races the party did not see as potential targets earlier in the cycle.

House Majority PAC will spend $420,000 this week in the Twin Cities, where it is targeting Rep. Erik PaulsenErik Philip PaulsenMinnesota Rep. Dean Phillips wins primary Pass USMCA Coalition drops stance on passing USMCA Two swing-district Democrats raise impeachment calls after whistleblower reports MORE (R-Minn.). It will also spend more than $230,000 against Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.), and more than $100,000 against two Virginians, Reps. Scott TaylorScott William TaylorLuria holds onto Virginia House seat Chamber-backed Democrats embrace endorsements in final stretch Bottom line MORE (R) and Dave Brat (R).

“Our investments this cycle, we see opportunity in districts across the country, across the board,” Kelly said.

The two sides have spent the most on advertising, $36 million, in the Los Angeles media market, where Democrats see a chance to make inroads in Republican-held districts in Orange County and east of the city. Democrats and Republicans have spent more than $30 million in the Minneapolis market, and $23 million in New York, which also covers a handful of New Jersey-area seats.

Ad spending has topped $10 million in nine other media markets — Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Detroit, Houston, Seattle, Denver, Miami, Kansas City and Washington, D.C.