The top House Republican super PAC had always planned to spend big to protect GOP lawmakers in Democratic-friendly districts. But Donald Trump’s free fall is forcing American Action Network and its sister PAC, Congressional Leadership Fund, to also shell out millions in red-leaning districts that weren’t even in play until this month.
Their suddenly urgent mission: Build a firewall to prevent a Democratic takeover of the House.
With Trump fending off allegations of sexual harassment, and his tanking numbers threatening to pull down once-safe GOP lawmakers, this is what 2016 now looks like for the pair of related conservative outside groups: They’re dropping $500,000 million on TV ads in deep-red Utah to protect Rep. Mia Love, whose Mormon-heavy district has recoiled from Trump’s vulgar comments about women. They’re spending another $700,000 in Tucson, Arizona to protect freshman Rep. Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel who’s comfortably led her Democratic challenger all year. And they’re working to shore up conservative-leaning districts in the Central Valley of California, western Colorado, upstate New York and Michigan.
The vast majority of the groups’ money is still being spent on competitive races. But the pair of groups is also now engaged in a a pre-emptive attempt to stanch the bleeding caused by Trump and preserve Speaker Paul Ryan’s historically large majority. Officials say they hope to prevent Democrats from expanding their map, and allow the National Republican Congressional Committee to focus its resources on the toughest races.
“There’s certainly a challenge at the top of the ticket… so it’s prudent to look at what’s going on and make sure we have a firewall laid down to protect [lawmakers] in the event that things got to a place that were more challenging,” said Mike Shields, who leads both groups and likened their strategy to taking out an “insurance policy.” “It’s a lot of preventative maintenance… [laying] down a protective blanket over some races so that you can force the fight back into the top races where we’ve always know there’d be a real election.”
Republicans always knew they’d have trouble holding onto about half of the 20 GOP-held Democratic-leaning districts that President Barack Obama carried in 2012 — Republican pick-ups that Democrats still to this day dismiss as a fluke. But with signs of a potential wave building for Democrats, GOP fears have grown about the map expanding well beyond those seats.
Inside the GOP leadership there’s also been a shift in thinking. Lawmakers and aides at the NRCC and atop the party’s leadership structure predicted single-digit losses before they left for their election-season recess. Now, these aides and lawmakers say losses could be 10 to 20 seats, leaving the GOP with a slimmed-down majority. However, many of them concede that a 20-seat loss could easily become 30, and thus the majority.
That’s why CLF and AAN are working to build a protective shell around a group of second-tier candidates few were watching before now. They’ll spend $2 million to protect California Rep. Jeff Denham, a three-term congressman who thumped his Democratic opponent the first time they faced off in 2014. That money will be used to counter millions being poured into the district by Democrats trying to capitalize on Denham’s district’s large Hispanic population: Their ads seek to tie Denham to Trump’s controversial comments about undocumented workers.
CLF and AAN are also investing $1.3 million in Rep. Scott Tipton’s Colorado district. Tipton handily beat his Democratic challenger last cycle, 58 percent to 36 percent. But his opponent, former state Sen. Gail Schwartz, out-raised him $623,000 to $423,000 in her first quarter, turning the his sleepy re-election into a real race. And since then, House Majority PAC, the outside group associated with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, has poured hundreds of thousands into the district.
The conservative groups also spending a half-million-dollars for Rep. Elise Stefanik in New York, though Stefanick’s campaign just released a poll showing her leading her democratic challenger 54 to 29. And they’re pumping about $1.7 million into a trio of Michigan districts: to help incumbents Tim Walberg and Mike Bishop, and win an open seat being vacated by Dan Benishek.
Officials at the super PAC and related nonprofit say the uptick in spending is a protective measure and does not signal that the seats are truly up for grabs. Plus, in this climate, there aren’t many competitive seats where the GOP can go on offense.
Democrats counter that the outlays show how dramatically the House landscape has shifted in their favor. The GOP must see a serious threat to drop this amount of cash, they argue.
“Clearly House Republicans are pushing the panic button as Donald Trump continues to melt down,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Meredith Kelly. “Threatened by strong candidates running smart campaigns, Republican allies are spending millions in districts that Republicans never thought — or at least admitted — they’d be forced to defend.”
Republicans say they hope they have seen the end of Trump’s slide and the race begins to stabilize. But a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll from the weekend showed Democrats up in the generic ballot test, 45 percent to 38 percent. If Trump continues to drop, AAN and CLF say they have the cash and bandwidth to fight back. The super PAC announced it has raised $31 million, nine times more than it raised in the third quarter of last election cycle.
“We have the money to do it, so we’re going to take up an insurance policy and it’s going to push everything back up to where it’s supposed to be,” Shields said. “If it’s close, we’ll be glad we did it.”
GOP officials say they believe they’ll have a better idea of the electoral landscape after Wednesday’s presidential debate in Las Vegas.
The strategy certainly helps the NRCC, freeing House Republicans’ campaign arm up to focus on their most vulnerable members, like Rep. Will Hurd on the Texas border or Carlos Curbelo on the southern tip of Florida.
Should Trump stabilize, group officials said they’ll shift their focus back to the most vulnerable lawmakers.
“We feel like we have enough resources beyond our original budget, so we can take on that responsibility and allow the rest of the team to finish doing their job,” Shields said. “Our latest round of buy… lays that preventative firewall down so everyone can focus back on those top races. .. protects some districts, ensures that they won’t get to a competitive place and allow our other Republican friends on the House side to focus on the top tier races again.”
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