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 John TrumpTrump claims media 'smeared' students involved in encounter with Native American man Al Sharpton criticizes Trump’s ‘secret’ visit to MLK monument Gillibrand cites spirituality in 2020 fight against Trump’s ‘dark’ values 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 JenkinsPompeo seen as top recruit for Kansas Senate seat Exiting lawmakers jockey for K Street perch GOP seeks to ram through Trump’s B wall demand 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 TrottMeet the lawmakers putting politics aside to save our climate Michigan New Members 2019 Democrats flip Michigan seat in race between two political newcomers 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 PearceDem governors on 2020: Opposing Trump not enough Election Countdown: Recount prospects grow in Florida | Abrams team to sue over absentee ballots | Dem wins pivotal Georgia House seat | A look at the uncalled races | Corporations spend big to beat ballot measures Torres Small flips New Mexico House seat for Dems 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 WalzTimothy (Tim) James WalzStates scramble to fill void left by federal shutdown Where does your governor stand on marijuana legalization? Dem governors draw contrasts with Trump MORE (D) and Rick NolanRichard (Rick) Michael NolanMinnesota New Members 2019 Republicans pick up seat in Minnesota’s ‘Iron range’ How America’s urban-rural divide is changing the Democratic Party 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 HorsfordTen Dem lawmakers added to House Ways and Means Committee Nevada Democrat calls Trump’s focus on border wall ‘unfortunate and unnecessary’ The Hill's Morning Report — Pelosi to reclaim Speakership amid shutdown MORE (D) are both staging comeback bids. Republicans are also spending on seats being vacated by Pearce and Reps. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyMark Kelly considering Senate bid as Arizona Dems circle McSally Schumer recruiting top-notch candidate for McCain Senate seat On The Money: Shutdown Day 26 | Pelosi calls on Trump to delay State of the Union | Cites 'security concerns' | DHS chief says they can handle security | Waters lays out agenda | Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions MORE (R-Ariz.) and Dave ReichertDavid (Dave) George ReichertYoder, Messer land on K Street Ex-GOP lawmaker from Washington joins lobbying firm Outgoing GOP rep says law enforcement, not Congress should conduct investigations 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 RothfusTrump's most memorable insults and nicknames of 2018 Pennsylvania New Members 2019 Pennsylvania Dem: Trump has proven he's 'interested in negotiating' 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 ComstockDems win Virginia state Senate special election Dem rep asks for asks for pay to be withheld during shutdown New Dem lawmaker hangs trans flag outside office on Capitol Hill 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 PaulsenThe 8 House Republicans who voted against Trump’s border wall Minnesota New Members 2019 Defeated Republicans mocked by Trump fire back at president 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 TaylorEx-GOP Rep. Ryan Costello joins group pushing carbon tax Virginia New Members 2019 Overnight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — First lady's office pushes for ouster of national security aide | Trump taps retired general as ambassador to Saudis | Mattis to visit border troops | Record number of female veterans to serve in Congress 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.