WASHINGTON – Signaling a new phase in the struggle for control of Congress, House Democrats have reserved time for more than $30 million worth of campaign advertising this fall in roughly two dozen congressional districts, with a heavy emphasis on the Northeast and Midwest.
The Democratic targets include clusters of Republican-held seats in the Philadelphia area held by Reps. Jim Gerlach, Curt Weldon and Michael Fitzpatrick, as well as the Ohio River Valley, where Reps. John Hostettler of Indiana, Geoff Davis of Kentucky and Steve Chabot of Ohio can expect a protracted televised barrage.
Based on information available to date, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee intends to air ads for eight weeks in an attempt to defeat Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico. Rep. Clay Shaw of Florida faces a particularly well-financed opponent, but he can also expect to face five weeks of Democratic-paid advertising.
After 12 years in the minority, Democrats need to pick up 15 seats this fall to gain control of the House.
Material about advertising reservations is publicly available. Bill Burton, a spokesman at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, declined to comment, although other officials said the organization is in the process of identifying additional target seats and reserving more advertising time.
Reserving time in advance can save money for a purchaser because some stations will sell advertising during the summer months at lower rates than they can command in September or October.
By signaling their intentions this far in advance, Democrats also make it possible for their own candidates to know how much help they can expect. While the advertising effort must be kept independent of the candidates, the public nature of the information makes it widely known.
At the same time, Democrats have not yet paid any money to stations, and the strategy of reserving large amounts of advertising time far in advance can carry risks.
Two years ago, the DCCC reserved time to advertise in a pair of House races in New Hampshire, heartening the party's candidates as well as activists in the state. When the station asked for payment, the committee dropped its plans, infuriating local officials who complained that the state had been written off by strategists in Washington.
Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, said the organization has not yet reserved advertising time, although it plans to do so in the coming weeks.
Until recently, the two parties have largely been focused on candidate recruitment, fundraising and opposition research to prepare for the intense final few months of the two-year campaign cycle.
Two years ago, the two parties spent more than $70 million combined on their own advertising, which by law are undertaken independent of activity by the campaigns.
Judging by recent reports, the totals for 2006 will be higher.
The DCCC reported this week it had $32 million in the bank as of June 30, compared with $18.4 at the same point two years ago.
The NRCC reported slightly $26.5 million cash on hand as of June 30.
Party-paid advertising has played a critical role in the national battle for House control in recent years, with Republican and Democratic strategists both concentrating their efforts on a relatively small number of seats that appeared competitive.
Democrats have labored for more than a year to increase the number of competitive districts, and appear to have done so to an unknown extent.
There are other differences between the current campaign and the last one that appear to benefit Democrats.
The electorate has grown weary of the war in Iraq, and as a result, President Bush's poll ratings are far lower than during his successful re-election campaign in 2004.
Additionally, unlike in 2004, Democrats are not defending a spate of districts in Texas that were redistricted to make them more favorable to Republicans. The DCCC spent roughly $4.5 million in advertising in five districts in the state two years ago in an effort to save incumbents from defeat. Four of the seats fell to the Republicans.
Based on the time reserved to date, Democrats appear inclined to make Hostettler the recipient of their most sustained advertising barrage, 11 weeks in the area around Evansville.
Other targets include Reps. Dave Reichert of Washington, Mike Sodrel of Indiana and Rob Simmons of Connecticut.
Apart from Republican incumbents, Democrats intend to advertise in several GOP-held seats where lawmakers are retiring. They include districts held by Reps. Jim Kolbe in Arizona, Bob Beauprez in Colorado, Jim Nussle in Iowa, Mark Green in Wisconsin and Henry Hyde in Illinois.
The party also reserved time to advertise in districts held by Democratic Reps. Melissa Bean of Illinois, Leonard Boswell of Iowa and Alan Mollohan of West Virginia. Republicans have signaled they will target all three for defeat.