If the battle for control of the House runs through Republican-held suburban seats, then it will also be waged in the country's most exorbitantly priced media markets.
Antipathy toward President Trump among well-educated and affluent voters ushered in a slew of new battleground territories in places like Orange County, northern New Jersey, Dallas, and Houston, where a week's worth of ads can come with a million-dollar price tag.
That concentration in suburbia poses a complicated task for both parties, who hope to support candidates in those areas while also playing in dozens of other races.
"There are more competitive districts than at any time since 2010," said former Rep. Steve Israel, who led the House Democrats' campaign arm for four years. "But so many of those districts are in or are very close to the highest-priced media markets in the country."
As primary season enters its final months, the campaign committees and allied super PACs have already booked over $145 million in TV reservations in more than 40 congressional districts, according to an analysis of media-buying data. So far, more than a dozen of those lie in the 10 largest broadcast regions.
Though Democrats have been buoyed by small-dollar fundraising this cycle, some party operatives concede that market costs have the potential to limit the scope of the battlefield, and spending decisions must be made carefully because Republican outside groups have tens of millions of dollars in their arsenals.
"We’re taking a very dispassionate look at every district and making the clear-eyed strategic investments that are going to make the dollars go further," said Charlie Kelly, the executive director of House Majority PAC, the Democrats' flagship super PAC. "Our counterpart has real resources. There’s no question about it."
House Majority PAC has reserved roughly $40 million so far, and Kelly said it expects to play in more districts than it did last cycle, when it spent in about 40 races.
Democrats are bracing for a barrage of outside money on the Republican side. The Congressional Leadership Fund, House Republicans' main outside group, has reserved the most airtime of the major players—nearly $49 million in 24 districts—and announced Thursday that it raised a stunning $51 million last quarter and had $71 million in the bank.
In interviews, strategists from both parties predicted that outside spending could stretch as far as 60 to 70 districts. Top GOP officials offered a more conservative estimate in the 40-seat range, and insisted that Democratic claims of a historic playing field were simply bluster.
"I hope and pray the Democrats reserve TV time in 70 districts, because they’ll be spending millions of dollars in districts that aren’t competitive," said Corry Bliss, CLF's executive director.
Complicating the cost-benefit analysis is that operatives from both parties are unsure how those districts, some of which historically have little Democratic DNA, will behave now that Trump isn’t on the ballot. House Democrats are targeting the usual suspects in biennial swing seats, but many other districts have come online because the president failed to carry them.
For example, Democrats played in two races in the Los Angeles media market last cycle. The party is now eyeing five. Democrats have not frequently contested seats in Dallas and Houston, the fifth- and seventh-most expensive markets, respectively, but now they plan to spend in both to oust Reps. Pete Sessions and John Culberson.
“Are you going to spend $2.5 million to go after John Culberson when you only have one number that you’re betting on and it’s the Trump margin?” said Guy Harrison, the National Republican Congressional Committee's executive director in 2010 and 2012. “That’s a $2.5 million bet. Do you think that's a better bet to go there, or spread out and go after three different districts?”
In 2010, the NRCC ran ads in nearly all of the 63 seats that Republicans netted, Harrison said. But many pickups were in cheap markets in the South and the Ohio River Valley, where outside groups could often run several ads for less than a million dollars.
A laundry list of top Democratic targets falls right through the largest cities: Seats held by Republican Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen, who is retiring, and Leonard Lance are in the New York City market; Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick’s district and the seat left vacant by Rep. Charlie Dent fall in Philadelphia; and Rep. Peter Roskam’s district is in suburban Chicago.
Rep. Tom MacArthur has the misfortune of holding a district that is split between the New York and Philadelphia markets.
The parties are fastidiously following each other's reservations. Republicans gleefully note that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has booked the least of the four major players in House races, locking in just $22.5 million as of Monday. In contrast, the NRCC has booked $35.5 million.
"They haven't reserved in the majority of where we would expect them to be," said a senior Republican official working on House races, pointing to markets in Arizona and Illinois. "The rates are going up by the day."
Demand also plays a large role in determining cost, meaning smaller markets with high interest will see prices skyrocket. Both parties have made sizable buys in the Las Vegas and Minneapolis markets that will host House, governor, and Senate races, and are expected to be among the most saturated in the country.
Major outside spenders have publicly announced reservations earlier than in past cycles, touting the fact that booking in the spring rather than late summer locks in the lowest rates. CLF and House Majority PAC made their first reservations in March and April.
DCCC officials said they're watching the markets closely and booking before rates go up, but until that happens, they don't need to tip their hand on where and when they will spend.
The committee expects to be financially involved in 60 races or more, though that could range from smaller field investments to multimillion-dollar ad buys, said Dan Sena, the committee's executive director. The DCCC spent more than $60 million in roughly 30 races last cycle, and will likely surpass that in 2018.
To grapple with an expanded map, the committee rejiggered its outside-spending strategy, prioritizing its efforts to boost fundraising by their candidates, who receive cheaper rates than a committee's independent-expenditure arm and can run ads at lower cost. "There’s not a targeted congressional race in the country that we are not helping either implement best practices for digital fundraising, or running part of that program for them ourselves," Sena said.
And there is some indication that those efforts have paid off. So far, more than a dozen Democratic candidates have reported topping $1 million raised in the second quarter, and many are running in expensive areas.
"I think you’re going to see lots of markets this cycle where the candidates have the ability to tell their stories and fight, and the IE is a smaller portion of the picture," Sena said.
In the prior two quarters, more than 40 Democratic challengers outraised GOP incumbents, but many of the most battle-tested Republican members will likely still report a cash-on-hand advantage by Sunday’s second-quarter filing deadline.
The GOP also has dozens of open seats and therefore may not have the budget to support every incumbent. While the party often abandons those who haven’t demonstrated strong fundraising or campaign prowess, well-funded vulnerable members in massive markets could also get cut off.
Notably, CLF has not yet made a fall reservation in Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock’s Northern Virginia seat, which swung for Hillary Clinton by 10 points and falls within the Washington, D.C., media market.
Polls have shown Comstock trailing her Democratic rival, state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, who brought in $1 million over the past three months.
"How do you make these races look unattractive to Republicans?" said Jon Soltz, the cofounder of VoteVets, a Democratic outside group. "Our candidates raising $800,000 or $900,000 a quarter."