With Election Day a little more than a month away, both parties are performing painful triage operations in the battle to control the House, pulling resources from candidates with no chance of winning — or at least too small to be worth the effort — in order to concentrate money on more promising races.
This chess game, while routine, is a delicate, complex and often imprecise science for party leaders. The consequences can be drastic — leaving struggling candidates with limited resources for launching late surges, or helping those in competitive races push to victory.
“It’s difficult. It’s the ultimate political Rubik’s Cube,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who served from 2006 to 2008 as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee — the fundraising arm of House Republicans that spends millions of dollars every election cycle on ads and other efforts in support of candidates.
“There are a variety of factors but, at the end of the day, it’s about where can I win the most and where can you minimize losses, and that’s how I decide how to distribute whatever resources I have,” he said.
The redistribution of wealth already has hit some races.
The NRCC’s opposite number, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in recent days has pulled a planned two-week ad campaign supporting Rep. Larry Kissell, a two-term moderate from North Carolina, who political analysts say is likely to lose.
The DCCC also has canceled an ad purchase in support of Democrat Patrick Murphy, a political newcomer locked in a tight battle to unseat Rep. Allen B. West of Florida, a tea party darling.
A senior House Democratic official said the Florida pullout was as result of a Democrat-friendly super PAC — House Majority PAC — spending $1 million on efforts to defeat Mr. West and wasn’t an indication it was giving up on the race. But the move didn’t stop Republicans from crowing.
“The fact that Democrats already are abandoning their own House incumbents speaks volumes about the long road they have to get Nancy Pelosi back into the speaker’s chair,” NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay said.
The NRCC, meanwhile, hasn’t reserved TV airtime for several vulnerable Republican incumbents, including Reps. Frank C. Guinta of New Hampshire and David Rivera of Florida. A senior House GOP official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, however, said the NRCC likely will spend money on Mr. Guinta in the coming weeks.
Mr. Rivera, who faces accusations that he helped a ringer candidate in the Democratic primary and whose Miami-area district is an expensive media market, likely won’t receive NRCC help.
“House Republicans gave up on some of their members before the election even started, and others are drowning under the weight of the Romney-Ryan drag,” DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson said.
Losing party committee support can devastate a vulnerable candidate on several fronts. Not only does it mean a loss of critical committee-sponsored TV and radio ads, but also the negative publicity can cripple fundraising efforts and deflate a campaign’s volunteer base.
News of party committees pulling out of a race leaves a candidate wide open for attack from the opponent, who will use it to portray the rival as forsaken and damaged goods.
“If you’re pulling money out of one race and pumping it into another, that’s usually a sign that you’re likely going to lose in the first race, but you’re also having problems in the second,” a former NRCC official said on the condition of anonymity. “It’s a scalp on the wall for your opponent, and it is usually used as a way to portray momentum.”
For the party committee chairman, triage decisions involving incumbents can be extra difficult because they are also personal, often involving longtime friends and colleagues.
“These are hard, nasty, tough decisions,” said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, who chaired the NRCC in the 2000 and 2002 election cycles. “The guy you told you’d be there for, all of a sudden you can’t be there for him because you’ve got to save somebody else.”
Mr. Cole agreed, saying that informing colleagues that they have been cut off from party committee support is among the toughest duties he has executed in Washington.
“You’re a little bit like a doctor who is delivering bad news to a patient, saying, ‘I’m sorry, you’ve got six weeks to put your affairs in order,’” he said. “A little empathy is not a bad thing. But at the end of the day, you have to live by the data and the advice that you get.”
Such decisions have left bruised egos and fits of frustration among incumbents — even among those whose campaigns are doing well.
“There is nothing more paranoid than a politician who thinks their life is on the line, whether the objective data suggests it is or not,” Mr. Cole said. “It’s very emotional in that way.”
The parties say they base their triage decisions mostly on objective criteria, such as polling, the fundraising prowess of a candidate, demographics and the opponent’s strength, among others. Yet gut instinct also plays a part.
“These are generally metrics decisions, [but] there is some element of subjectivity — you know, on candidate behavior, coordination between the candidate and the national side, so you get a little bit of that,” he said.
Sometimes money spent during one campaign season will bear fruit in subsequent election cycles, as about a half-dozen candidates in whom the NRCC invested but lost in 2008 won House seats two years later.
The proliferation of outside money into races from political action committees and super PACs also has changed and complicated triage calculations.
“It creates a much more uncertain environment,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the DCCC chairman in the 2008 and 2010 election cycles.
Media purchases by third-party groups — which by law can’t communicate directly with the parties — have allowed the committees to stretch their budgets. But the practice also has resulted in the DCCC and NRCC losing some control and influence in races.
“We have [outside groups] spending more than the committees spend, because they’re raising money in million-dollar chunks, while we’re raising at considerably smaller portions,” Mr. Cole said.
He added that, even in races a party thinks it has locked up, a super PAC can unexpectedly dump $1 million into a race at the last minute to potentially change its trajectory.
“It’s a whole new universe,” Mr. Cole said.