Party bosses place midterm bets

It’s decision time for Republicans and Democrats battling for control of the Senate.


Five weeks before the midterm elections, party leaders are peering into their campaign bank accounts, doing their math and trying to figure out where to put their money — and where to abandon hope.

While it is unclear which party will be running the upper chamber in 2015, the states that will decide the race are now apparent.

The decisions by D.C. power brokers are sure to be a disappointment for some candidates who will be left to the wayside.

“It’s not a job for the sentimental. It’s hard to call a candidate up six weeks out and say, ‘I’m sorry, I know this is your dream, you’ve run a great campaign and we’re very fond of you, but you’re not going to get there and we’re pulling out,’ ” said Jim Jordan, who served as political director and executive director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and managed its independent expenditures in 2008.

“It’s a very difficult conversation.”

Republicans are going on offense against as many as six Democratic incumbents, all clinging to their seats. If the GOP takes three of the six races, in Arkansas, Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana, New Hampshire and North Carolina, it would likely hold the House and Senate in the final two years of President Obama’s term.

The GOP hasn’t had to worry too much about losing seats, and in recent weeks its confidence has grown that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' Tensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum No. 2 GOP leader eyes Wednesday of next week for possible votes on witnesses MORE (R-Ky.) will win reelection and that the party will retain a seat in Georgia.

Those races have long been seen as the Democrats’ best opportunities to broaden the playing field.

Yet, there are now signs in Kansas that veteran Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsSenate fails to get deal to speed up fight over impeachment rules Juan Williams: Counting the votes to remove Trump Senate GOP hopes to move new NAFTA deal before impeachment trial MORE (R) could be defeated by an independent challenger. Several recent polls have shown Roberts trailing Greg Orman, a wealthy candidate who has said he will caucus with whichever party has a clear majority.

Earlier this month, Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanCollins walks impeachment tightrope The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Senate Republicans muscle through rules for Trump trial MORE (Ohio), the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s (NRSC) vice chairman for finance, said he was “hopeful” Republicans wouldn’t have to spend money in Kansas, Georgia or Kentucky.

Given Roberts’s struggles, that game plan might have to change.

The DSCC has so far limited its spending in Kentucky and Georgia, and it is not doling out cash in three states the GOP is expected to pick up: South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia.

The committee’s total investment has been $500,000 in Kentucky and $1.4 million in Georgia. Those sums are starkly overshadowed by the money spent by Republican-allied outside groups on advertising: $21.7 million in Kentucky and $16.3 million in Georgia as of late September, according to a Democratic source who tracks media buys.

In October, the cycle is entering the phase when party officials must put candidates through triage, like a hospital station on the Western Front. Campaigns and candidates that can be saved will get attention. Others will basically be left to die.

Jordan said the hard truth is that incumbents get first dibs on party funding.

“The Senate committees and the House committees exist to support incumbents first and foremost,” he said.

“That’s why the caucus supports the committees.”

But Democrats may even have to abandon some incumbents if they decide they need to pour resources into a state or two to save their majority.

Former Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) “blew his stack,” a former Democratic Party official remembered, when he was told that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would not invest in his race in the final weeks of the 2010 campaign.

The veteran congressman unleashed a profanity-laced tirade that left one staffer so shaken that “it looked as if someone had waved a gun in their face.”

Pomeroy now says he harbors no hard feelings. He recalls being upset not so much by the allocation of resources than by the way the decision was handled.

“I felt like in 2010 they were not straightforward and we did get in the newspaper in unflattering stories,” he said. “I can’t argue with the triage decision made but it was executed very poorly.”

Former Rep. Ron Klink (D-Pa.) said former DSCC Chairman Bob Torricelli (N.J.) blew up his chances of winning the 2000 Senate race in Pennsylvania by withdrawing support down the final stretch.

“I believe in my heart of hearts that Bob Torricelli, the head of the DSCC, sold us out. He sat in a room prior to the primary and said he thought we were going to win it and made a promise of over $2 million to our campaign,” Klink recalled. “Not only did he not come through with the money, he actually held a press conference and basically announced to the world the campaign in Pennsylvania was not winnable.”

Torricelli said he made a difficult decision by steering funds to other races.

“Every chairman of the campaign committee has to make allocations of budget. You get the best intelligence you can, use your instincts and make critical decisions,” he said.

“My judgment at the time was that [Sens.] Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowSenate fails to get deal to speed up fight over impeachment rules The Hill's Morning Report — President Trump on trial John Lewis to miss Martin Luther King Jr. Day event MORE [D-Mich.] and Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonThe most expensive congressional races of the last decade Lobbying world Bottom Line MORE [D-Fla.] were more likely to win. The polling that we looked at late in Ron Klink’s race indicted it was problematic. The fact that we regained control of the Senate indicated we did something right,” he added.

But even Torricelli said he would “never know” for sure whether the decisions he made were the correct ones. Democrats this year haven’t had to decide between, say, North Carolina, Arkansas or Alaska just yet.

But the decision not to play in South Dakota isn’t sitting well with Democrat Rick Weiland, whose supporters argue he is clawing his way into contention with former Gov. Mike Rounds, the GOP front-runner.

Weiland’s boosters note that many right-of-center voters might be tempted to back Larry Pressler, an erstwhile Republican who served three terms in the Senate and is running this year as an independent. Weiland could come through the middle to win, his supporters argue — if he gets sufficient backing from the national party.

“It would be crazy for the DSCC not to be in here. They don’t have a lot of room for error around the country. [South Dakota] is a cheap market,” said Steve Jarding, an adviser to Weiland who worked for the DSCC in the 1990s.

Chris LaCivita, who served as political director at the NRSC in 2002, said “a lot of factors come into play making the decision where to allocate resources.”

The party committees first look at the turf. Is it favorable territory for their party? Does the state or district have a history of electing Democrats or Republicans to Congress? Which way did it go in the most recent presidential race?

Party officials then look at candidates’ resources. Can they raise money on their own? Can they organize a stable of volunteers to turn out the vote?

“Committees don’t go in and fill funding gaps. They add on. They insure,” LaCivita said. “Is the campaign itself being run wisely? Is it running on all its cylinders? Does it have a ground game?”

This year, there is one unarguable fact when it comes to the Senate landscape.

NRSC Chairman Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranMcConnell keeps press in check as impeachment trial starts Overnight Defense: War powers fight runs into impeachment | Kaine has 51 votes for Iran resolution | Trump plans to divert .2B from Pentagon to border wall War powers fight in Senate runs squarely into impeachment MORE (Kan.) has substantially less money to work with than Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetWarren ad claims Trump fears her most Sanders to headline Iowa event amid impeachment trial On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Sanders defends vote against USMCA | China sees weakest growth in 29 years | Warren praises IRS move on student loans MORE (Colo.), the chairman of the DSCC.

The Senate Democratic committee reported $25.3 million in cash on hand at the end of August, while the Senate Republican committee reported $19.9 million. The DSCC has outraised the NRSC $111 million to $83 million this cycle.