With soft money now permanently removed from their portfolios, Congressional campaign committees face a new era of politics in which they will play dramatically reduced roles in the races.
The committees simply won’t have enough money to operate in the same fashion as they have in recent years. Particularly hard hit are the Senate committees, both of which financed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of campaign ads in the previous four cycles, according to aides and strategists.
Aides and former aides say the Supreme Court decision upholding the ban on unlimited contributions will drastically reduce the number of states and districts in which ads paid for by party committees can be aired in future campaigns.
“We were the last hurrah,” said one former aide who worked with one of the campaign committees in 2002.
The numbers are already bearing out the realities of a hard-money-only world, most particularly for the Senate campaign committees.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is a shell of its former self without soft money. On Sept. 30, 2001, the DSCC ended the third quarter with $11.2 million in cash on hand. Two years later — no soft money allowed — the committee ended the third quarter with less than $2.6 million, barely a fifth of its nine-month 2001 take.
But the National Republican Senatorial Committee isn’t in much better shape. On Sept. 30, 2001, the NRSC held $16.3 million in the bank, dwarfing the less than $7 million the committee had on hand two years later, a 57 percent drop in cash.
While current campaign committee staff remain upbeat that fundraising tends to get better for them in election years, former aides said the Senate committees will only have enough cash to play a vital role in a handful of states at best.
One aide to a 2002 campaign noted that in South Dakota — the least populated battleground state last cycle, with just 330,000 voters — each committee spent roughly $4 million, predominantly on ad campaigns supporting and attacking the two candidates.
If the two committees were to attempt spending that much in South Dakota right now, the DSCC would be bankrupt and the NRSC running on fumes.
DSCC and NRSC aides contend that their committees continued to remain very relevant, with some suggesting the Supreme Court’s ruling would help with hard-money fundraising because now everyone knows the rules of the game.
“The whole atmosphere is going to be better for us because the uncertainty has been lifted,” said DSCC spokesman Brad Woodhouse. Woodhouse noted the committees have invested heavily in attempts at smaller dollar donors and hiring more people in fundraising this cycle than in previous years.
“We’ve got a lot of growth potential. It’s going to bear fruit. It may take time,” he said.
Dan Allen, the NRSC spokesman, pointed to the DSCC’s continuing debt problem — more in debt than cash on hand — and said that would give the GOP a long-run edge. Still, Allen acknowledged, “committees are going to have to be much more selective in the races they’re targeting.”
The House campaign committees in 2001 filed fundraising reports every six months, as opposed to the quarterly reports filed by the Senatorial committees during the same period. When compared to the six-month mark this year, both panels raised far less from two years ago.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, which posted $14 million in the bank for the first six months of 2001, had just $6.5 million in its war chest on June 30 of this year, mostly because of a massive and expensive direct-mail and telemarketing campaign. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee posted $6.3 million in the bank June 30, off from roughly $9 million two years ago.
Redistricting, however, has already greatly narrowed the number of districts in play each cycle, and many districts are in areas without expensive media markets, making it possible for the NRCC and DCCC to be more of a factor than the Senatorial committees.
One campaign manager for a Senate race this cycle likened the new era to a “pre-1996 role,” when the DSCC and NRSC were primarily recruiting and research operations pushing stories in the local media. In the final weeks of the Senate campaigns, the committees would be able to make a dent in a few races with ad campaigns, the manager said.
“They’re not going to be a 50-50 partner anymore,” the campaign manager said. “They will more likely be an entity that’s going to help us on the edge.”
Candidates themselves are aware that the new rules mean they will be more on their own than the past four cycles, in which the committees played increasingly vital roles.
“There’s never any promises,” said Rep. Brad Carson (D-Okla.), who is running for the seat of retiring Sen. Don Nickles (R). He said top Senate Democrats made it clear to him that, if he was in strong contention down the stretch and the DSCC had the dollars, he might get some help.
“You need to go prove it,” Carson said he was told.
Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.) received a similar line regarding his race against Sen. Arlen Specter (R), assuming Specter wins a primary challenge against Rep. Pat Toomey (R).
“They said they would give me their maximum help. They don’t know what that is,” Hoeffel said in an interview before the court’s ruling.
And, because the court upheld the ban on outside groups running soft-money-financed attacks ads within 60 days of the general election, the candidates will likely face less competition for the airwaves from Labor Day on in many races.
According to a Republican estimate, the NRSC and the DSCC spent from $55 million to $60 million each on television and radio advertisements last cycle. The NRSC funded at least 150 different commercials in the ’02 cycle.
In the final week of the campaign, the NRSC spent more than $1 million in seven different states. “We spent as much or more than the candidate in some states,” one former aide associated with the 2002 cycle said of the final weeks of the campaign.
A GOP strategist predicted that the message that does get delivered in media ads, whenever they are run, will have to be very narrowly tailored. There won’t be enough money to run ads testing what message works: “You’re pretty much looking for a home run each time you go up,” the strategist predicted.
Each of the committees is hoping to remedy the problem long term by a larger universe of donors, with the NRCC making the largest investment so far. That committee has dished out almost $85 million to one telemarketing and direct-mail company, Ohio-based Infocision, landing many new small donors.
The NRCC is raising money at roughly the same pace as in the days of soft money, taking in $64.4 million through the end of October. (The campaign committees now file reports monthly.) But the costs of Infocision’s work is so high that they continue to hurt the committee’s cash-on-hand figure, having already spent more than $58 million this year.
The DSCC’s coffers also dropped in October after it made a $500,000 payment on its debt, leaving it with $1.2 million in cash and a $1.9 million debt. The NRSC ended October with $7.4 million in the bank, and the DCCC ended with less than $5 million in its account one year away from Election Day.