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GOP Groups Hedge Bets

Outsiders May Limit Spending

With three weeks to go until Election Day and a grim political landscape for Republicans, some outside GOP-leaning groups appear close to consolidating their losses, pulling up stakes just as Democrats are expected to begin flooding House and Senate races with millions of dollars worth of television ads, robocalls and direct mail.

A source from a prominent conservative-leaning political action committee said Friday that dwindling bank accounts and a rash of unforeseen late-turning races is forcing GOP operatives off of Capitol Hill to scale back the number of Congressional contests they will invest in.

“We have races that we thought were going to be safer than they are,” the source said. “We’re buckling down on a couple of key races because there’s a limit to how many resources you have.”

In recent weeks, polls have shown that open-seat contests in traditionally safe House GOP districts now are giving Republicans the jitters, particularly Reps. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) and Harry Mitchell’s (D-Ariz.) districts, where President Bush won twice by handsome margins.

Potentially close contests involving incumbent Reps. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) and Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) also are keeping Republican operatives up late at night. As of late last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had spent more than $1 million combined targeting Shadegg and Walberg.

Meanwhile, as operatives for GOP-friendly groups began attempting to cut their losses, a spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union said late last week that the union’s political operation has set aside $8 million — the same amount the beleaguered National Republican Congressional Committee borrowed from Wachovia Bank last week to pad its barren coffers — for the final weeks of the campaign.

And the money appears to be burning a hole in the union’s pocket.

“We’re going to spend all of it,” SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette said.

As of late last week, SEIU had spent $150,000 softening up Rep. Thelma Drake (R-Va.) and more than $160,000 combined helping the Democratic opponents of Reps. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) and Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), according to Federal Election Commission records.

Through last week, the SEIU’s political action committee also spent at least $45,000 on direct mail attacking Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) and $120,000 helping Rep. Mark Udall’s (D-Colo.) Senate bid.

Ringuette declined to name specific races that the union’s PAC may target in the final weeks, but said, “We don’t take anything off the table.”

“We’re going to see how these candidates are doing and take it on a day-by-day basis,” she added.

But not all GOP-leaning groups are crying “uncle” just yet. U.S. Chamber of Commerce spokesman J.P. Fielder denied that his group was cutting loose some of its Republican candidates in the coming days, saying that the powerful business lobby still has “a pretty substantive list of races that we’re going to keep pushing.”

Winnowing down the group’s priorities, Fielder said, is “not really the plan right now.”

Fielder did confirm, however, that the chamber is now involved in “a couple of dozen” House races and at least eight Senate contests, including nail-biter races involving Sununu and Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.). He also said that the chamber this cycle plans to spend “well over” the $20 million-plus it spent ahead of the 2006 midterms.

Fielder suggested that his group is committed to helping Coleman through Election Day in his battle with comedian Al Franken (D), saying, “This race isn’t a joke. It’s a race between ideas and knowledge of policy issues.”

“We’re not going to jump ship on Norm Coleman because he’s tightened up in the polls one day,” Fielder said. “You’ll never find a greater contrast between two candidates.”

The National Rifle Association also would not discuss its 11th-hour strategy for House and Senate races. But with more than $9 million in the NRA’s Political Victory Fund as of Aug. 1, the group could more than afford to continue defending shaky incumbents such as Knollenberg, Walberg, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.).

Liberal-leaning NARAL Pro-Choice America said on Friday that the group so far this cycle has spent more than $500,000 on independent expenditures, buys that it expects “will increase substantially during the next few weeks.” NARAL declined to provide a breakdown of its specific outlays, but a spokeswoman did confirm that the organization has written checks to House and Senate candidates totaling more than $270,000 so far this cycle.

Reliably GOP-leaning Freedom’s Watch and the Club for Growth also declined to discuss their fourth-quarter strategies, although many of the anti-tax crusader’s independent expenditures are available on the Federal Election Commission’s Web site.

As of late last week, the Club for Growth’s PAC had spent more than $190,000 defending Walberg, while an affiliated committee devoted almost $170,000 to Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), who is on Roll Call’s list of the 10 most vulnerable House incumbents.

Unlike the scorched-earth policy that many outside groups practice in October — bombarding voters with endless television and radio ads, direct mail and robocalls — EMILY’s List spokeswoman Ramona Oliver said that not only does her group stay away from television buys, but it typically uses the final weeks before Election Day to micro-target “discrete” slices of the electorate, potential supporters who may have slipped through the cracks during the previous 24 months.

“Women don’t tend to respond as well to television — they’re busy,” Oliver said.

“You spend a lot of money [on TV ads] talking to 30,000 people that you want to talk to, plus another 150,000 or 1 million people that you didn’t want to talk to.”

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