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GOP strategists worry incumbents aren't ready for a blue wave

Republican strategists are warning that some of the party’s veteran House incumbents aren’t adequately preparing for the 2018 election, putting the GOP majority at risk by their failure to recognize the dangerous conditions facing them.

Nearly three dozen Republicans were outraised by their Democratic challengers in the most recent fundraising quarter. Others, the strategists say, are failing to maintain high profiles in their districts or modernize their campaigns by using data analytics in what is shaping up as a stormy election cycle.

“There are certainly incumbent members out there who need to work harder and raise more money if they want to win,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP’s top super PAC. “They’re fundamentally not prepared for how they’re about to be attacked.”

After Democrats’ sweeping victories last week, Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm, wrote a pointed memo — titled “Surviving the 2018 Election” — addressing Republican incumbents. The firm counseled incumbents to start their reelection campaigns earlier than planned, to do early message testing, and to begin planning their voter turnout operation now, as opposed to next fall.

“Some [members] get it and some don’t,” said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster with POS. “First thing we’re saying to them is, ‘don’t be in denial, this can happen to you.’”

Bliss said that while most perennial battleground incumbents are taking precautions, a number of Republican House members aren’t preparing seriously enough.

CLF is already fortifying weak spots in the GOP’s 24-seat majority — including territory Republicans have held for a generation — as it builds a massive field program to defend Republican-held districts next year. The group has opened offices in 20 Republican congressional districts around the country and plans to open another 10 in the coming weeks, highlighting an emerging 2018 battlefield heavy on suburban seats where Hillary Clinton outran President Donald Trump last year.

The data-driven super PAC plans to spend over $100 million in those districts — even targeting some Democrats in Trump country.

Bliss declined to identify specific members who appear to be lagging, but the super PAC’s recent actions speak loudly. CLF recently opened new field offices in the districts of Texas Rep. John Culberson and New Jersey Rep. Leonard Lance, both veteran incumbents who have cruised to reelection without serious opposition in recent years. But Culberson and Lance have raised less money than any Republicans running for reelection in Clinton districts, alarming GOP strategists.

“We’re trying to do a better job in fundraising,” Lance said in an interview. “We’re something like 35 percent of where we were at this time two years ago, and we’re doing a better job, and obviously [we] want to continue with that.”

Lance said that the recent gubernatorial and legislative elections in New Jersey made fundraising “a tad bit more difficult” this year. But his campaign also noted that Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno still carried Lance’s district in the governor’s race despite losing statewide by double-digits.

Culberson, who outspent his 2016 Democratic opponent by roughly 20-to-1 but won just 56 percent of the vote, was outraised in the last quarter by two Democratic challengers.

“Culberson’s problem — and other congressmen like him — lies more with motivating their own base, because if they can’t deliver their own conservative agenda, it’s 100 percent a problem for them,” said Luke Macias, a Republican consultant based in Texas.

“A lot of people feel like he’s not as connected to his district and he doesn’t spend as much time there as he could,” Macias said. “That’s a common criticism from political activists, Republican and Democrat, across the board.”

Culberson’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Beyond fundraising, some House GOP members haven’t upgraded their campaign practices. In recent weeks, Chris Wilson, a Republican consultant, met with several House members who don’t currently use data analytics — campaign modeling technology commonly used in races up and down the ballot.

“If you do not, at this point in the cycle, have an understanding of who’s going to vote in 2018 based on data analytics, then you’re way behind,” Wilson said.

In past elections, struggling incumbents often looked for outside help to help them across the finish line. This year, however, strategists are issuing early warnings that the cavalry might not be coming.

The POS memo warned that members should “not assume that, if you are floundering, that the party or super PACs will step in and rescue you.”

Bliss reiterated that tough-love message: “We’ll do whatever it takes to maintain the House, but if members don’t do their job, then we can be very strategic on how we allocate, and where we allocate CLF’s resources.”

Of the 20 CLF offices already up and running, two-thirds are in seats Clinton won in 2016. They include a handful of battleground seats that have been staples of recent congressional elections, like Rep. John Katko’s seat in upstate New York and several districts in the Philadelphia suburbs. But the 2016 election results also highlighted a handful of Republican seats that have not always been contested, including districts represented by California Rep. Ed Royce, Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder and Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulsen, as well as Lance and Culberson’s — all of which now have CLF field offices and figure to be key 2018 bellwethers.

“Whatever data they’re looking at is going to lead the way [for office locations],” said Bill Cortese, a Republican strategist. “They’re not doing it on a hunch or a gut feeling, but they’re doing it because they see there are issues popping up in those districts.”

Super PACs typically stay out of the get-out-the-vote business, preferring to spend their millions on waves of negative TV ads. But CLF is engaging volunteers — especially high school and college Republicans — and knocking on voters’ doors months before the 2018 elections really kick off in earnest. In Nebraska, CLF volunteers showed up at former Democratic Rep. Brad Ashford’s campaign launch with signs that read: “Ashford = Pelosi’s puppet.” Last month, CLF volunteers dressed as clowns and attended a Democratic debate in California’s 10th District.

The group test-ran the on-the-ground strategy this spring in Georgia’s special House election, where more than one-third of its spending to help Republican Karen Handel went into its field program and other non-TV work. The super PAC will likely need to do the same next November for GOP voters, who have grown frustrated with Congress’ failure to repeal Obamacare.

Democrats say it’s a sign of GOP weakness to have the super PAC showing up in their neighborhood the year before the election.

“It reflects that this district is looking for new leadership and Republicans have a reason to be worried,” said Alex Triantaphyllis, one of the Democratic challengers who outraised Culberson last quarter. “Culberson has not been engaged with this community … he’s focused more on upholding national Republican ideology.”

Democrats also criticize CLF’s strategy, saying that running a field program through a super PAC is wasteful compared to more candidate-centered tactics.

“When it’s completely paid for by a super PAC, not only is it not authentic, but lacks any depth,” said Dan Sena, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Would a voter rather have a neighbor you’ve known for 10 years [canvass for a candidate] or a paid 15-year-old kid?”

But Republicans insist it’s all part of the early prep work that could help them keep the House in 2018 — assuming their members are up to the task.

“We lost a dozen seats in 2006 that were preventable had incumbents had done their work, and at this point, we may be seeing the same thing in some seats,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, who once chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We don’t know what a year from now will look like, but if you’re interested in coming back, you better plan on it getting worse.”

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