WASHINGTON – Signaling a costly struggle ahead, the political parties have reserved a combined $30 million in television advertising for roughly three-dozen House seats, a blend of races that hints at a Republican advantage heading into the fall campaign.
Democrats, who need to gain 12 seats for a majority, intend to begin advertising next week for the seat held by retiring Rep. Jack Quinn (search), R-N.Y., moving in quickly to help the winner of Tuesday's primary.
Republicans are expected to launch their own television effort swiftly in Washington state, where they are defending seats held by retiring GOP Reps. Jennifer Dunn (search) and George Nethercutt (search).
Detailed information about the preliminary advertising plans of the House campaign committees is widely known within the political and advertising communities. Several of the sources who discussed it agreed to do so only on condition of anonymity, citing the need for privacy in matters of campaign strategy.
All officials stressed that the list of races targeted for television advertisement is certain to change over the next two months. The National Republican Congressional Committee (search), which has reserved less time than the Democrats, had more money at the end of July, for example.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (search) has reserved $20 million worth of television advertising time thus far spread over roughly three dozen seats, according to these sources.
"It's very, very important to stress this is not a guarantee that we're going up (advertising) anywhere and certainly doesn't preclude us from going into additional districts," said Greg Speed, a spokesman for the DCCC.
"I expect that to happen, in fact," he added.
Apart from television advertising, Speed said the party committee will finance get-out-the-vote activities and pay for mass mailings and radio commercials to help its candidates.
The races in which Democrats have reserved time amount to fewer than the 40 or more seats that party strategists have long claimed are competitive.
Additionally about two dozen of the seats are in GOP hands and the balance held by Democrats. That means Democrats would have to hold all their own seats and win roughly three-fourths of the others on the initial list to gain a majority. Republicans hold 228 seats, Democrats 205 with one independent and one vacancy.
The NRCC has reserved about $10 million in advertising time in about a dozen districts. A spokesman, Carl Forti, described the GOP approach as an attempt to ensure "maximum flexibility."
In addition to the flexibility Republicans seek, they enjoy a financial advantage. The NRCC reported cash on hand of $22.4 million as of July 31. The DCCC had $17.6 million, although Speed said the campaign of presidential candidate John Kerry has since donated $3 million.
"Based on these initial numbers you'd expect the heavy advertising to begin in early October," Forti said. He said Democrats had reserved advertising time in "some real long shots" in New Hampshire, Missouri and elsewhere, adding, "I think it's easy to discern the Republicans will hold onto the House."
Thus far, there is only one seat where Republicans have reserved time that Democrats have not, a campaign in Texas.
Democrats have reserved time in several where Republicans have not, signaling an early intention to target GOP Reps. Rob Simmons in Connecticut, Jim Nussle in Iowa, Katherine Harris in Florida and more.
Voters in several districts are likely to witness dueling independent expenditure campaigns. These include GOP Rep. Anne Northup's race in Kentucky, GOP Rep. Heather Wilson's re-election campaign in New Mexico, and a fight for an open Republican seat in Colorado and an open Democratic seat in rural Kentucky.
Thus far, Democrats have not yet reserved time in districts they earlier identified as competitive. These include the seat held by Rep. Max Burns, R-Ga.; the effort to unseat Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo.; and Republican Rep. Robin Hayes in North Carolina.
The two parties have spent heavily in recent election cycles on commercials designed to influence the outcome of House campaigns, and expenditures of $1 million or more in individual races was common.
But limits imposed by the campaign finance law restricts the size of donations that party committees may receive, and they now have far less money available than in the past.
Several officials in both parties said that under the law, television stations are allowed to sell the party organizations time at a higher rate than individual candidates would be charged.
Thus, reserving time in August and September is an attempt to lock in a better rate than might apply in October, when advertising slots grow scarcer and stations can command higher prices.
In addition, the law sharply limits the ability of committees to coordinate their activities with campaigns. Thus, while neither party has yet put down any money to reserve time, they can signal their intentions to their own candidates.
As an example, the DCCC has so far reserved four weeks of time in the Phoenix area, signaling Democratic challenger Paul Babbitt what type of help to anticipate in his effort to unseat Republican Rep. Rick Renzi.
To date, the GOP committee has reserved three weeks of time in the same race.