A new reality for House contests

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The influx of outside dollars has campaigns doubling down on retail politics.


CARROLL, Iowa—House races have historically attracted relatively modest sums of money. Not this year.

Outside groups have changed the dynamic of contests across the nation by dumping millions of dollars into the battle for control of Congress and candidates are fighting to keep pace in the final hours of campaign 2012.

The spending is forcing campaigns to be fluid, swift, and to double down on the basics. Old-school retail politics is proving as reliable as ever. The new dynamic is particularly evident in Iowa where even the Humane Society is dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars on the race for the newly redrawn fourth district.  

The contest pits five-term incumbent Republican Steve King—who has angered some groups by opposing legislation promoted by animal rights advocates—against popular former Iowa first lady, Christie Vilsack whose husband is U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack. Big names, new campaign finance rules and this year’s high stakes election have attracted millions.  

"It's a challenge. Every other ad on TV is from a Super PAC," according to the Vilsack official who says competing with the presidential contest has only increased pressure on them to quickly churn out precise ads. "We've had an aggressive ad campaign on TV.”  

In this district, the recipe is just about perfect. King is known for saying what’s on his mind, and for that he’s won a following with his party’s conservative wing. He has gotten campaign help from Crossroads GPS.

For Vilsack, being the spouse of the sitting agriculture secretary and former Iowa governor has its perks, too. The challenger has attracted big names on the stump this cycle, including former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden in these waning days of the election. Having such political titans on the trail "helps break through the negative ads," argues a Vilsack campaign official.

Just over $2 million has been spent opposing King and nearly $2 million opposing Vilsack—enormous sums of money for a House seat in this stretch of Iowa. It also doesn't help that Iowa is deeply purple meaning candidates have to compete with all the mudslinging taking place at the presidential level.

Along with placing more power behind their own TV buys, both campaigns have also embraced another method of cutting through the clutter. Early in this epic battle, the candidates agreed to participate in seven debates. That's four more than the two men running for president.

All those King/Vilsack debates provided an "opportunity for us to speak directly with voters," says an official with King's campaign. "I don't know if it's the answer, but it's a great chance for us to get the truth out there."  

House contests raging in non-battleground states don’t have as much noise from the presidential contest to deal with, but plenty of races are still bombarded by outside money. The Center for Responsive Politics anticipates $187 million will be spent on House contests and that excludes what the parties are spending. In 27 House races, outside spending has exceeded $5 million.

Democrats need to pick up 25 seats to take back control of the House on Tuesday. Early in the cycle, the party expressed optimism about its pickup chances, but given the current landscape, control of the House seems all-but out of reach for Democrats.

In most places, especially where TV time is relatively affordable and down ballot campaigns aren’t being pushed out by the presidential race, it has meant a major uptick in spending on campaign ads.

“It’s more active than we expected,” says Mike Bruno, the National Sales Manager for Albany’s News10, an ABC affiliate in upstate New York.  

Running in sprawling districts that span as many as five media markets, challengers have struggled to combat the flood of money. Democrat Julian Schreibman is trying to unseat Republican incumbent Chris Gibson in New York’s 19th District, which has been drastically redrawn. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has helped keep him competitive, but he says competing with the outside money on the airways makes retail politicking his best option.  

“The way you have to respond to that is by talking directly to voters, having a strong grassroots campaign, which we do,” he says. “We have offices all around this district and volunteers all around this district.” Schreibman had about 20 or 30 volunteers working the phones for him daily throughout much of the fall.    

But even for some Republican candidates who are running with the support of well-heeled Super PACS there’s a feeling they’re ceding messaging to groups they can’t control.

“Certainly we wake up in the morning and wonder who’s going to be on TV,” says Mike Doheny, the Republican challenging Rep. Bill Owens in New York’s 21st Congressional District. “That’s dictated away from us. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes it hurts, but on balance it’s just part of the game; part of the deal.”  

With outside groups that have the ability to dump hundreds of thousands into a single congressional race, many House candidates find themselves unable to effectively respond, especially late in the game.

It’s why in the final hours before Tuesday, Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation predicts outside group messaging will dominate in the majority of competitive districts, regardless of what the candidate campaigns do.

“Super PACS can have the greatest impact is in House races,” he says. “That’s why I think you’re seeing in a lot of House races it’s really the Super PACS that are setting the agenda. And it’s not so much the candidate message, as it’s the outside group message that gets out to voters.” 


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