In a worrisome sign for two endangered Orange County lawmakers, a major Republican Party funding group has passed over the pair in its opening round of broadcast television advertising across Southern California.
The omission of Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Mimi Walters by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee closely aligned with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), comes at a crucial inflection point in the midterm election when the two parties begin assessing their likely winners and losers.
The decisions are particularly acute for the GOP, which is facing a tsunami of Democratic campaign cash ahead of a feared blue wave on Nov. 6.
“Republicans are taking a cold-blooded look at races to decide where to put resources and where to withdraw resources to put somewhere else,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan election analyst who has spent decades sizing up campaigns.
The GOP has already cut loose several incumbents, including Reps. Mike Coffman in the Denver suburbs and Mike Bishop in southern Michigan.
Democrats need a gain of 23 seats nationwide to take control of the House, which they surrendered after a blowout loss in the 2010 midterm election.
Candidates in California, where more than half a dozen seats are being seriously contested, are at particular risk of being cut off financially because of the state’s exorbitant advertising costs. Money saved in the costly Los Angeles media market can be spread over several contests in other states that may be considered more winnable.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, which collects multi-million-dollar checks from the Republican Party’s biggest donors, says it is spending nearly $12 million on cable television ads in four House contests in Southern California
On Friday, the super PAC launched an additional $5-million ad campaign on the main broadcast stations in Los Angeles, the nation’s second most expensive media market after New York.
But the fund’s opening broadcast ads support only two of the four Republican candidates in the Southland’s hardest-fought races: Rep. Steve Knight of Palmdale and Young Kim of Fullerton, relegating its Rohrabacher and Walters ads tocable channels with fewer viewers.
Courtney Alexander, the super PAC’s communications director, declined to comment on its advertising maneuvers.
“If the election were held today, we believe that both Mimi Walters and Dana Rohrabacher would win their reelection,” she said.
The fund is free to add Walters and Rohrabacher to its broadcast lineup later. But millions of Californians have already received their ballots by mail, so immediate advertising is crucial to the fate of the two lawmakers, who are each facing their most serious challenges ever.
Rohrabacher has served 15 terms in Congress and Walters is bidding to win her third term.
Their Democratic challengers are already spending heavily on broadcast television ads. Walters has aired some broadcast commercials too, but Rohrabacher has not.
Nationwide, Democratic candidates have raised far more money than Republicans. As a result, GOP candidates are counting on outside groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund to come to the rescue.
But those groups must pay as much as quadruple the rates that television stations are required by law to offer to candidates, so the Democratic dollars are buying far more ad time. And those dollars are expanding the political battlefield, pressuring Republican strategists to make hard decisions on where to commit precious resources and which candidates to let go.
“While most people talk constantly about whether [Democratic enthusiasm] will translate into turnout, it’s definitely translating into dollars,” said Rob Stutzman, a veteran Republican strategist in Sacramento. “Dollars aren’t decisive always, but it’s always a big advantage.
“When you’re these national committees and you’ve got problems in the suburbs of Dallas, Kansas City, Chicago, Philadelphia, you’ve got to start making decisions on where you can most effectively spend,” Stutzman said
For Knight, facing a formidable fundraiser in Democratic challenger Katie Hill, the new boost from the Congressional Leadership Fund came as a big relief. “We’re happy to have the help,” Knight strategist Matt Rexroad said.
Kim, the other Republican getting broadcast ads from the fund, is battling Democrat Gil Cisneros to succeed Rep. Ed Royce of Fullerton.
A Rohrabacher spokesman did not return a call for comment.
Dave Gilliard, a strategist for Walters, warned against reading too much into the latest machinations.
“There’s a lot of head fakes and games of chicken that occur between various outside spending groups in all these congressional districts,” he said. “Everybody’s trying to head-fake the other side to get them to spend money where they don’t need it.”
A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee said the GOP’s congressional campaign arm is now broadcasting a spot supporting Walters and attacking her challenger, Katie Porter.
But he declined to say whether the committee would step up its advertising in either Orange County district if the Congressional Leadership Fund keeps Rohrabacher and Walters limited to cable.
Still, the spokesman, Jack Pandol, said there were no plans to retreat.