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Triage Looms Over Campaigns

For Congressional incumbents seeking re-election, the most vicious part of every cycle awaits: triage.

In the coming weeks, the national party committees will decide which races are deemed winnable and merit their resources – resources Members themselves donated and helped raise – and which should be abandoned.

“There’s a lot of yelling and screaming going on,” recalled Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), who oversaw a brutal cycle for House Republicans as National Republican Congressional Committee chairman in 2008. “The judgements that are called for? It’s political life and death for some people.”

Party officials are already moving money between races.

Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee shifted a week’s worth of airtime from Rep. Larry Kissell’s (D-N.C.) uphill re-election bid to target Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.). House Democrats did not cut off Kissell completely, but the move signals that the DCCC believes its funds are better spent on other races.

There’s more of that to come in October, and it won’t be pretty.

The DCCC reserved $61.7 million in airtime across 41 districts through Election Day. The NRCC reserved less airtime, $43.8 million, and is currently on the air in 35 districts.

Those reservations will shift frequently between districts as parties cross non-competitive or hopeless races off their lists.  

Currently, committee staffs are poring over data daily, including polling, finance reports and media buys, to determine the state of every race in lengthy “around the world” meetings.

“The overriding question is, ‘Can we win?'” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman in 2008 and 2010. “You have to allocate resources to maximize the number of seats you win – and that does require some tough decisions.”

Often the Members at risk hail from the most expensive media markets: Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Sacramento, Calif. The committees might initially invest in such contests. But if the race cannot be salvaged, the committee pulls the plug. Other Members, such as Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (Md.) whose district falls within the expensive Washington, D.C., market, might never see an independent expenditure on their behalf simply because the race is presumed out of reach.

Already, speculation is swirling over which Members are on the chopping block, although committee officials usually keep such information quiet.  

“A lot of these candidates are competing with each other in this sense,” said Brian Smoot, a veteran of the DCCC in the 2008 cycle. “You don’t have unlimited money.”

Fortunately for the committees, this cycle’s triage will be less bloody than the past three wave cycles, when party officials cut off races by the dozen to staunch their losses.

For one, the field is smaller because redistricting diminished the number of competitive House districts. Secondly, third-party groups are spending in many of these contests already.

In recent cycles, if a committee cut off a candidate, the race was over. Not anymore.

This cycle, a committee might just be cueing a third-party group to step in.

Congressional campaigns, super PACs, and the committee’s IE arm cannot by law coordinate with each other. But they signal to each other through their buys, which are public.

If a committee stops spending in a race ?- especially for a short period – it’s often a signal to a third-party group that help is needed in that race.

The result is a relay race of resources, with committees and super PACs buying time in succession. Nonetheless, resources are still limited, and thus triage remains a difficult and sensitive practice.

“The individual decision might be more important this time because nobody has a wave behind them that can cover up mistakes,” Cole said.

The DCCC started reserving ad time early this cycle to secure good rates ?- even though it’s more obvious when it pulls out of a race. The NRCC reserved less airtime and later in the cycle, announcing districts to its buys each week.

But moving reservations at the eleventh hour is expensive. Ad rates can climb as much as 100 percent in competitive markets, especially in cities where the presidential campaigns are playing.

Third-party groups, including the campaign committees, can spend as much as $600 per point in the Las Vegas market today, according to a source who monitors the market. Candidates get a special rate of around $180 per point.

Last cycle, last-minute shifts caused chaos among the House Democratic Caucus. Starting in late September 2010, Democrats cut several candidates each week.

As the playing field expanded to more than a 100 races, Van Hollen answered angry calls from his colleagues bound for defeat.

“I think by the end of the cycle, everybody understood why we had to make tough decisions,” Van Hollen said. “But certainly, at the time they were made, people were less than thrilled.”

Specifically, Van Hollen made hard calls early in Ohio, moving airtime reservations out of races for then-Reps. Mary Jo Kilroy and Steve Driehaus and instead investing in competitive contests in New York and Kentucky.

The New York Times broadcast Kilroy’s fate in a front-page story.  Driehaus lashed out with an online video blasting the DCCC for boosting Democrats who didn’t vote for the health care overhaul law instead of him.

But Democratic Reps. Tim Bishop (N.Y) and Ben Chandler (Ky.) each won re-election by a few hundred votes.

For Republicans, the 2006 and 2008 cycles were just as cruel. In the final weeks, Cole recalled “fox hole” checks, peering into races to look for signs of life with polling results. When survey results showed Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) tied with his opponent in the 2nd district, Cole continued with his buy in the nearby Minneapolis market.

That cycle, a few Members who knew they would lose respectfully declined the committee’s help. Many other Members were less gracious.

“They know you’re the chairman – they’ll pick up the phone and call you and say, ‘Hey, I’m dying out here,'” Cole said. “And you say, ‘I know. I’m your doctor.'”

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