Republicans are likely to retain their House majority, but a handful of late-breaking races are suddenly forcing the party to play defense in unexpected territory.
Most stunningly, national Republicans are steering $1.2 million to an open seat in Indiana that Mitt Romney last carried by double digits. In Florida, the party is sending $1.4 million to try to bail out veteran Rep. John Mica in a newly redrawn district. And in California, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, the wealthiest member of Congress, is fighting strong headwinds in affluent suburbs where Donald Trump is highly unpopular.
“There is a collective will on the Republican side to make sure we don’t leave anything to chance,” said one GOP strategist involved with House races and granted anonymity to speak candidly. “This is a really weird election.”
To Democrats, the new spending signals an environment breaking in their favor.
“Some of these Republican incumbents have not done the work they needed to shore up their districts, and we’re seeing Democratic enthusiasm and a distaste for the Republican Party among independents that very well could lead to picking up one, two, or all three of these seats,” said Alixandria Lapp, the executive director of House Majority PAC.
In Indiana’s open 9th District, which Trump is expected to comfortably carry, unique candidate circumstances have prompted a rare burst of spending.
Republicans nominated Trey Hollingsworth, a Tennessee businessman who took a beating in the primary for only recently moving to the district and for heavily self-funding. In the months since, even Republicans concede that his image hasn't significantly improved.
Democrat Shelli Yoder, who was Miss Indiana in 1992, offers an unhelpful contrast for Hollingsworth, and House Majority PAC is spending $650,000 in the district on her behalf. Hollingsworth’s campaign is jumping on that outside help to tie Yoder to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“Those morals, values, and ideals don’t line up with where Hoosiers stand,” said Rob Burgess, a Hollingsworth spokesman.
Most GOP strategists believe that Hollingsworth will ultimately prevail thanks to the district’s partisan lean. And on the whole, Republicans deny their that new spending there—or in Florida—points to a dramatically expanded battlefield.
“Democrats failed to recruit in a slew of competitive seats that they desperately needed to win in order to ever reach the majority,” said Katie Martin, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Still, Republicans concede that they have a remarkably tough fight in Mica’s Central Florida district, where the NRCC directed a late wave of spending.
Under Florida’s new congressional map, President Obama and Mitt Romney would have deadlocked in the 7th District with 49 percent of the vote. Democrats fielded political newcomer Stephanie Murphy, a national security specialist who fled communist Vietnam by boat with her family. Already, Democratic groups have shelled out nearly $4 million to boost her bid.
Even Republicans lament that the 38-year-old Murphy is a compelling candidate against Mica, a 12-term incumbent. Privately, they grumble that Mica could have done more to insulate himself from a challenge, introducing himself earlier to the portion of the district he didn't previously represent and amassing stronger fundraising hauls.
In an interview, Mica pushed back against criticism that he has not run an aggressive enough campaign. According to his internal polling, he added, he is beating Murphy in the part of the district that is new.
“They don’t have a clue,” he said of his critics within the party. “We targeted the new part of the district in the primary. We walked it, we called it, we mailed it—you couldn’t do any more than we did.”
But the NRCC still saw reason to pump in $1.4 million for him in the race’s final two weeks, launching its first TV ad Wednesday.
In California, Republicans also believe Issa waited too long to mount a formidable campaign. His race took on national attention in June, when Democrat Doug Applegate pulled in a surprising 45 percent of the vote in the top-two primary after running a fairly modest campaign.
Republicans said Issa could have shut down this race by spending more money over the summer, but he only recently went on the air. Meanwhile, Issa has emerged as a strong supporter of Trump, unlike many of his vulnerable GOP colleagues.
“This is a great proof point for the impact Trump has had,” said Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin, who works on the race for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s independent-expenditure arm.
The NRCC has not spent in the 49th District, perhaps a result of Issa’s personal wealth. Democratic groups have steered more than $3 million to the district.
"I think Nancy Pelosi is certainly coming after the congressman, and I think the congressman wanted to make sure we were using our money in the best way possible," said Issa spokesman Calvin Moore, defending the campaign's spending decisions.
Some other recent investments from GOP groups have raised eyebrows. The NRCC launched an ad this week in Minnesota targeting Democrat Terri Bonoff, despite public polls showing Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen comfortably leading. The DCCC is continuing to spend money in the race, and House Majority PAC recently added $800,000 to the district, after canceling reservations there last month, according to a Democratic source.
The American Action Network is investing in Virginia’s 5th District and Pennsylvania’s 16th District, part of the GOP group’s efforts to build a Republican firewall, along with its sister super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund.
An expanding map is unquestionably a positive for Democrats, but the party likely won’t be matching Republicans in some of those reach districts.
“We are really only limited by our budget in terms of the places we can go play,” Lapp said.