WASHINGTON – Democrats have all but written off at least three Senate seats — in North Dakota, Indiana and Arkansas — and at least six House seats in Tennessee, Louisiana, New York and elsewhere as they embark on a final-weeks advertising push to minimize congressional election losses.
Emboldened by their prospects, Republicans recently threw $1.3 million into West Virginia in hopes of winning a Senate seat that was long thought out of reach. It was the GOP's latest move to expand a playing field already heavily tilting its way.
In the one-month dash to Election Day, both parties are zeroing in on races they have the best chances of winning, recalibrating strategies and shifting advertising money by the day. The state of play could change repeatedly between now and Nov. 2.
Democrats are especially worried about House districts in the economically troubled Midwest, and their chances of picking up GOP-held Senate seats have dwindled.
In the final stretch, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved at least $52 million to run TV ads in more than 60 districts, nearly all held by their own party. The National Republican Campaign Committee has set aside $35 million in airtime in 55 races, and officials say more is on the way.
The disparity is misleading.
Democrats consistently have had a cash advantage, but GOP-allied groups have weighed in and advertised in crucial contests for weeks.
The latest details emerged from campaign documents obtained by The Associated Press, as well as from interviews with more than a dozen Republican and Democratic operatives with knowledge of advertising plans, polling and strategy. All spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details publicly.
Control of Congress and the outlook for President Barack Obama's agenda is at stake this election. Some five dozen or more House races are competitive, mostly for seats now held by Democrats. Republicans need to win 40 to take control. Of the 37 Senate races, about a dozen are close. The magic number for the GOP is 10.
No one doubts that Democrats will lose seats in both chambers. The question is how many.
"The political environment is positive for us. I think our candidates are strong. And really it's going to be a resource issue now on how we can maximize the use of limited resources," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the Senate GOP's campaign efforts.
His Democratic counterpart, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, predicted his party will retain its majority despite the tough landscape marked by "a lot of ups and downs." He added: "I don't think the roller coaster is ready to level out anytime soon."
While technology has changed politics, television advertising still is a powerful and necessary political tool to reach voters, and it's the best indicator of where party leaders think they have a shot at winning. Both sides have reserved millions of dollars of airtime and will decide whether to cancel those orders or send the check. Any movement from one side will force the other to change strategy.
In the Senate, the GOP goal of seizing control became tougher when Republican leaders' favored candidate in Delaware, Rep. Mike Castle, lost to tea party conservative Christine O'Donnell. It's doubtful national Republicans will advertise in the state now unless polls show Democrat Chris Coons' poll lead evaporating.
Just as that race was falling off the map, Republicans were buoyed by the surprisingly neck-and-neck nature of the West Virginia Senate race. Cornyn's team invested to help Republican John Raese, and Democrats were forced to go on the air to aid Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin.
In other Democratic-held Senate seats, however, the party hasn't reserved any airtime to protect incumbent Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas or help Rep. Brad Ellsworth win an open seat in Indiana. Both are trailing their Republican opponents in polls.
The Senate Democrats' campaign committee disputes the notion that it's given up on those races, noting that it continues to spend money on turnout programs in both states and doesn't rule out providing more resources.
North Dakota was never in the Democrats' fall plans. Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan is retiring in a solidly Republican state.
Elsewhere, Democrats are on TV defending seats in Colorado, Delaware, Illinois and Pennsylvania, and are going up on the air in Connecticut. They've reserved airtime if needed to help Democratic Sen. Patty Murray in Washington state, but Democrats have been feeling better about that race in recent days and even Republicans say she's improved her standing.
At this stage, no party money is going to other hotly contested states held by Democrats — California and Nevada among them — but only because candidates are sitting on their own cash. Operatives also are closely watching Wisconsin, where Sen. Russ Feingold is in trouble.
Democratic hopes of picking up a Republican-held Senate seat now appear to rest on Missouri, where the party is running ads, and, perhaps, Kentucky, where airtime has been reserved. But money could be diverted elsewhere if those races start to look out of reach.
Officials in both parties say Republican contenders appear ahead in New Hampshire, Florida, and especially Ohio. No TV ad money is set thus far for those states.
Democrats already appear resigned to losing at least six House seats.
They include four districts left open by retirements and where no advertising is planned: Tennessee's 6th, Louisiana's 3rd, New York's 29th and Kansas' 3rd. Airtime has been set aside for two other open seats — Arkansas' 2nd and Indiana's 8th — but Democrats expect party leaders to cancel those plans if polls continue to show their candidates trailing badly.
Democrats also are trying to determine whether to move forward with advertising plans to win open Democratic-held seats like Tennessee's 8th and to protect vulnerable incumbents such as Reps. Steve Driehaus in Ohio's 1st, Mary Jo Kilroy in Ohio's 15th and Chet Edwards in Texas' 17th.
Dozens more races are extremely competitive including Reps. Travis Childers in Mississippi's 1st and John Spratt in South Carolina's 5th.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the House Democrats' campaign committee, said the environment was very fluid and Democrats were improving their standing. "There are a lot of races (Republicans) thought would be won by now but are not," he said.
Republicans, who are defending six competitive seats, expect to lose at least two: the open, at-large Delaware seat and Rep. Joseph Cao's 2nd district seat in Louisiana.
In the days ahead, Republican and Democratic leaders will determine where to deploy limited money, making decisions on which candidates to help and which to jettison.
"It's what we're doing every minute of every hour so we can very carefully place our resources and maximize our effectiveness. It's almost constant evaluation race by race," said Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, vice chairman of the House GOP's campaign effort. "There's a limited amount of money and a limited amount of time."
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