House Battle Turns to Television

Seizing the offensive in their campaign to retain control of the House, Republicans have begun running a television ad against the Democratic congressional candidate in eastern Washington even before the selection of his GOP opponent.

The commercial, which first aired Friday night in Spokane, Wash., marks the beginning of an advertising fight that likely will cost $30 million and pits Republicans against Democrats struggling to regain power after a decade in the minority.

The ad was paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee (search) at a cost of $87,000 over several days. It accuses Democrat candidate Don Barbieri (search) of "putting profits before jobs." The commercial says that when Barbieri's hospitality company merged with another business, "they laid off nearly a quarter of their work force."

Barbieri's son, Stephen, who is the campaign press secretary, said, "They came after him on something they haven't done their homework on."

Stephen Barbieri said the company purchased a dairy that was headed for bankruptcy and "actually saved jobs that would have been going away. ... He acquired the company, kept it going and kept those jobs alive."

Barbieri's Republican challenger will be selected in Tuesday's primary in the district, which has been in GOP hands for a decade.

For their part, Democrats intend to begin advertising in the Buffalo, N.Y., area on Tuesday, when their candidate is selected for a seat that also is in Republican control.

Democrats must gain 12 seats in the 435-member House to win a majority in November. The party has worked for two years to put enough congressional districts in play to give it a strong chance at success.

Because of bipartisan deals made during congressional redistricting after the 2000 elections, hundreds of seats in the House are safely in the control of one party or the other. That means Republicans and Democrats will spend millions of dollars on independent efforts such as advertising, get-out-the-vote operations and mass mailings to influence 40 or so races at most.

Several of these competitive seats are vacant due to retirements. Among those lawmakers leaving are GOP Reps. George Nethercutt (search) in Spokane and Jack Quinn (search) in Buffalo and Democratic Rep. Ken Lucas (search) in Kentucky. Each party has also targeted several incumbents in districts deemed ripe for a takeover.

The House Republican committee disclosed last week, for example, that it had paid more than $148,000 to reserve television advertising time in for a race in Texas. GOP challenger Louis Gohmert is taking on Democratic Rep. Max Sandlin in a district that has been redrawn to make it more Republican.

Both parties have reserved advertising time in the Spokane area, where Nethercutt's decision to run for the Senate triggered a competitive race for the House seat he won in 1994.

Barbieri emerged quickly as the Democratic contender for the seat, which has symbolic value. Former Speaker Tom Foley, the last man to preside over a Democratic-controlled House, held the seat until Nethercutt defeated him in the watershed election of 1994 that brought the GOP to power.

Barbieri is a successful businessman with a long history of charitable work and government service. Democratic officials have promoted him for months because of his deep roots in the area and his ability to help fund his own campaign. Through Aug. 25, he reported donating $346,000 to his race, more than one-third of the total raised.

Republicans wound up with a competitive three-way primary for the seat. Whoever wins on Tuesday will be far behind Barbieri in cash on hand with only seven weeks until the election.

Against this backdrop, the Republican committee hopes to begin tarnishing Barbieri's image quickly by injecting its own money into the race while the GOP nominee concentrates on the general election campaign.

The Republican ad refers to one of Barbieri's own, in which he says he means business when it comes to creating jobs.

The Republican commercial says of the merger: "For Barbieri it was a business consolidation. But for the workers, it was bad news."

Echoing comments by Barbieri's son, spokesman Greg Speed of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (search) said, "The fact that they are already going on the attack before the Republicans even have a nominee shows that they are very, very worried about holding the seat."

Carl Forti, a spokesman for the Republican committee, declined comment.

In one important respect, the struggle over the seat in the area around Buffalo is a mirror image of the one in Spokane.

Quinn's retirement set off a scramble. But in this case, Republicans coalesced behind a candidate. Democrats face a competitive mid-September primary, and the party organization is moving in to help.