House Republicans are hoping a late spending spree will stop the bleeding in an election increasingly looking like it will be a huge win for Democrats.
Democrats are trying to rival their 30-seat pickup in the House from two years ago and their chances of doing so seem to have improved. "It's going to be a bad night," one GOP strategist acknowledged.
Republicans are using a recent $8 million loan to ramp up spending on races in the last two weeks to stretch scant resources. The National Republican Congressional Committee released TV ads Tuesday going after Reps. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., and Don Cazayoux, D-La., as well as Democrats seeking six other seats.
The GOP has also been focusing on open-seat races to replace Reps. Bud Cramer, D-Ala., Terry Everett, R-Ala., Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, and Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo. President Bush won handily in three of those four districts in 2004, while narrowly edging Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in Pryce's district.
The NRCC has also spent more than $2.6 million to help GOP Reps. Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado, Steve Chabot of Ohio, Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida, Sam Graves of Missouri and Tim Walberg of Michigan.
"The NRCC is going to spend money when it matters most in the final days and weeks of an election," said spokesman Ken Spain.
But it might be too little, too late.
"It's hard to change the dynamic of a race in the last 14 days," said one Republican strategist, who criticized the NRCC for not moving earlier to funnel more money to less expensive media markets where Republican incumbents are in unexpectedly difficult races. "It's just baffling the way they're spending this," the strategist said last week.
As evidence of the souring GOP fortunes, The Cook Political Report recently changed ratings for 25 districts, all indicating Democratic momentum. Republicans have suffered a toxic combination of a financial market meltdown, a referendum on the unpopular Bush, anemic fundraising and an increasing number of candidates enduring self-inflicted wounds.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee plans to spend $1 million against Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who said on MSNBC's "Hardball" late last week that the Democratic presidential candidate, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, "may have anti-American views" and suggested that "the news media should do a penetrating exposé" to determine whether some members of Congress are "anti-America."
The Cook Political Report changed Bachmann's race from leaning in her favor to being a toss-up and now rates six Democratic seats and 25 Republican seats in the toss-up category. Cook now projects Democrats will gain 20 to 25 seats in the House.
DCCC Executive Director Brian Wolff said there are "between 20 to 25 that right now could go either way." The DCCC last week took out a $15 million loan, a record for either party's House or Senate campaign committee -- sensing an opportunity to win big in an election cycle that follows one in which Democrats took control of both the House and Senate.
"We always said we had more opportunities than we could afford," Wolff said. "It's still not covering some of these major media markets. ... We will have members of Congress that we were not able to help."
But the DCCC has been able to stay on the offensive through much of this cycle.
"The most interesting thing at the end of the day is how little that we're having to spend on our incumbents," Wolff said. The DCCC is focusing of late on beating Republicans in areas where Democrats have been surprisingly competitive, including races in Nebraska, Wyoming, Florida, West Virginia and Kentucky.
Toss-up races that the Democrats feel most confident about include districts held by Musgrave; Walberg and Joseph Knollenberg in Michigan; and Ric Keller and Tom Feeney in Florida. Republicans privately concede Feeney, who has been linked to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, is likely to lose and are pessimistic about Walberg, Knollenberg and Keller.
Democrats have all but officially conceded the seat of Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Fla., and are pessimistic about the re-election bids of Kanjorski and Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas. Democrats consider Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., a pure toss-up, but they say Cazayoux, who first won his seat in a special election earlier this year, and Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan., are pulling away.
Republicans say the Cazayoux seat remains a dogfight as both parties are funneling large sums of money into it. "The ballgame has frankly just started there," one GOP strategist said Tuesday. Both parties say state Rep. Michael Jackson, a black independent, will siphon votes from Cazayoux in his race against GOP state Sen. Bill Cassidy.
Republicans have expressed varying degrees of concern about a number of GOP incumbents, including Reps. John (Randy) Kuhl of New York; Christopher Shays of Connecticut; Phil English of Pennsylvania; Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida; Jon Porter of Nevada and John Shadegg of Arizona.
Republican insiders are split over the prospects of Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. He might actually have been helped by the addition of Gov. Sarah Palin to GOP nominee Sen. John McCain's ticket, even though she openly picked a fight with Young by enlisting her lieutenant governor to run against him in a bitter -- and close -- primary.
The economy has been the prevailing topic throughout the election cycle, with the emphasis shifting from gas prices -- where Republicans held an edge -- to a financial market crisis that has unquestionably helped Democrats.
Reagan Democrats, who might usually side with Republicans on national security issues, are siding with Democratic candidates as the economy has soured. Democratic pollster John Anzalone said it could mean big gains for Democrats in nontraditional areas. "It's the one time when we get some movement in the Deep South," he said.
But Republicans are hoping to make inroads because of the economy as well. "At a time when the economy is weighing heavily on the minds of voters across the country, Democrats are offering up candidates that have supported massive tax increases and put their own political needs above the needs of the middle class," NRCC spokesman Spain said.
The key for Republican incumbents and challengers is to distance themselves from Bush and show how they plan to change Congress. Musgrave, for instance, has emphasized her opposition to a farm bill supported by Bush for being loaded with pork. Other embattled Republican incumbents have noted their opposition to the Wall Street bailout package. "If you're running as a Republican, you've got to make all politics local," one House GOP aide said.
Another Republican strategist compared Election Day to watching a favorite sports team, knowing there is nothing to do to help but hope the game breaks the right way. "There are a large number of close races. The unknown is what's going to happen," the strategist said.
Here is how some of the key toss-up races are shaping up:
Musgrave is in a nasty race with Democrat Betsy Markey in the 4th District, with each side trading allegations of unethical behavior.
The NRCC reserved $1.2 million in airtime through Election Day, targeting government contracts that Markey's family business secured while she was a field director for Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo.
Markey has said her work for Salazar was unrelated to the contracts that her family's business, Syscom Systems, received. She has had more trouble explaining away her company's designation as a woman-led business even after she handed over the reins to her husband in 2006. The DCCC has reserved $667,000 in airtime, targeting campaign contributions Musgrave has received from oil and gas entities, the financial sector and other industries.
In a rematch of the 2006 race in the 1st District, former Republican Rep. Jeb Bradley will try to regain his seat from Shea-Porter, who rode a wave of anti-war sentiment to beat Bradley 51-49 percent in 2006 -- but is now more vulnerable as the focus in the fiscally conservative state has returned to the economy. At the same time, the state has seen a Democratic trend in recent years: Both houses of the state Legislature went Democratic in 2006 for the first time in nearly a century, and it is a key battleground in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Both national committees are spending heavily, with a GOP ad accusing Shea-Porter of voting "to allow sex offenders and drug dealers to buy homes made available with taxpayer money" and the Democrats trying to tie Bradley to Bush. Recent polls have showed an even race.
Democrats need strong showings in nontraditional areas to rival their 30-seat gain in 2006. This places special emphasis on the New Mexican districts being vacated by GOP Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce. Republican strategists are high on their candidate to succeed Wilson in the 1st District, Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, but the district is demographically challenging. Bush lost here by 3 points in 2004, when White was his county chairman. The Democratic candidate is former Albuquerque City Councilor Martin Heinrich. Polls have shown the race to be neck-and-neck.
Republicans say GOP restaurateur Ed Tinsley has run a less-than-stellar campaign against Democratic oilman Harry Teague and is in trouble in the 2nd District held by Pearce. But the conservative makeup of the district makes it challenging for Democrats.
Democrats can cement a particularly robust election cycle by two open seats in districts that went solidly for Bush in 2004.
In the 5th District, Democratic state Sen. Parker Griffith is trying to link himself to retiring Democratic Rep. Cramer. Republicans have brought back insurance broker Wayne Parker, who gave Cramer his two toughest challenges in 1994 and 1996.
In the 2nd District, an NRCC official said Republicans are "feeling better" about state Rep. Jay Love's chances of succeeding retiring GOP Rep. Everett.
One of the most highly touted Democratic candidates this year -- Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright -- faces one of the toughest districts demographically for the party.
As the lone remaining House Republican in New England, it is no surprise Shays, a nine-term veteran, is vulnerable. He won with 51 percent of the vote in 2006 by convincing his Democratic-trending district that he was different than Bush and other national GOP leaders. But this year is proving to be a stronger referendum on Bush.
"If there was ever an election cycle where he would be most vulnerable, it's this one," one House GOP aide said of Shays. "But I wouldn't count him out. You always know where he stands."
Democrat Jim Himes, a former investment banker, has matched up well with Shays in fundraising, television ads and mailers. Shays, though, had about four times as much cash on hand than Himes -- $1.8 million versus $441,000 -- at the end of September, according to FEC reports.
The open seat race to replace retiring GOP Rep. Pryce gives Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy a second consecutive try to represent the 15th District; she lost to Pryce by just 1,055 votes two years ago. But Republicans believe they have a rising star in state Sen. Steve Stivers, who served in Iraq with the National Guard and fits the district's socially moderate leanings. A Republican strategist called him "one of the best" Republican candidates this cycle.
However, Democratic voter registration at Ohio State University and elsewhere in the district could produce a strong showing for the Obama-Biden ticket and trickle down to help Kilroy in a race that the GOP strategist called "a real barnburner."
Twelve-term Rep. Kanjorski remains the most vulnerable nonfreshman House Democrat. Republicans are using the same call for change against Kanjorski that Democrats are using nationally.
Kanjorski has been criticized for steering millions in federal earmarks to his economically distressed district, including $10 million for an energy technology company owned by relatives that subsequently went bankrupt. The NRCC started airing a TV ad Tuesday noting the financial crisis and accusing Kanjorski of funneling money to himself and friends.
The DCCC is going after the Republican challenger, Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, for supporting Bush's push to privatize Social Security in a district that traditionally favors Democrats. Barletta, who ran against Kanjorski in 2002, has made his opposition to illegal immigration a rallying cry for his campaign.
Kanjorski has a huge fundraising edge, according to FEC records -- his $1.3 million on hand at the end of September dwarfed the $251,000 reported by Barletta. But Barletta has held a narrow lead in recent polls.
Some Republican insiders privately say Young -- first elected in 1973 -- is headed for defeat in his race with former state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz. "Stick a fork in him," said one House GOP aide of Young, who is being investigated as part of a larger corruption probe involving high-ranking Alaskan officials -- and who survived the August primary against Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell by a mere 304 votes.
But others in the party contend the resilient and cantankerous 18-term incumbent might hold on, in part because of Palin's selection as the Republican vice presidential candidate and the renewed attention she is bringing to Alaska. Recent polling has shown Berkowitz with a lead.
This article appears in the October 25, 2008 edition of NJ Daily.