How Senate Races Are Undercutting House Republicans

The GOP should be making strong gains in the House and building a buffer against a Clinton-driven wave. If only all the big money wasn't going to the Senate.

Republicans have an easy time getting donors excited about Senate races. Write a big check, they say, and you'll get the sweet satisfaction of watching Harry Reid give one final floor speech as majority leader before he turns control over to Mitch McConnell.

It's a much grander vision than anything House Republicans can offer. Their pitch? Help us increase our majority by 2 percent, or, if we're being ambitious, maybe even 5 percent.

"The comment I get at the end is, 'Look, you guys are great, you had a winning record in 2012, but I'm giving all my money to the Senate,' " said Brian Walsh, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, describing how "dozens" of his meetings have gone with donors. "It's a reflection of laser-focus on the ability to win the Senate. It's been the single-largest obstacle."

Indeed, House races are the undercard to the midterm election's championship fight, and not for nothing. There's real uncertainty in the Senate, while in the House the GOP will return with the same mountainous majority no matter what happens in most of this year's competitive districts.

But the huge funding gap that has emerged between the House and Senate Republicans has allowed Democrats to outraise and outspend on district races. Now, the GOP is in danger of squandering what should otherwise be a banner year, according to a collection of House Republican strategists and donors interviewed by National Journal.

And it's making lower-chamber Republicans both worried that their House conference won't have the padding needed if Hillary Clinton leads Democrats to the polls in droves in 2016 and bitter that they're punished for last cycle's success while the Senate, as one House GOP strategist put it, had "fumbled" its two prior opportunities for a majority.

"[The Senate GOP] has had some golden opportunities that we've blown, and as a result all the attention has been focused on the Senate—to the detriment of the House," said one consultant with a history of working House races, who, like many who talked for this story, requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Added another: "In the House, it's like there is no reward for success. And that's just the reality you live with."

The degree to which House outside groups are outgunned this cycle was evident last week, when the American Action Network and Congressional Leadership Fund announced they would spend $8 million on TV and digital ads and polling during the final two months of the campaign. By comparison, the main vehicle for outside spending by Democrats, the House Majority PAC, has already spent or plans to spend more than $22 million on TV ads alone.

Other groups have and plan to spend additional money on House races, including American Crossroads, the Chamber of Commerce, and Americans for Prosperity. But ad buys from national behemoths like the chamber have been isolated, and all of them have invested far more heavily on the Senate. Other groups aren't in a position to pick up their slack either.

What that's meant is the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has outraised the National Republican Congressional Committee, $136 million to $109 million, thanks in large part to the party's small-dollar-donor machine.

Certainly, the House GOP isn't bracing for losses on Election Day. A right-leaning map and favorable political environment ensure the party will pick up at least a few seats for 2015. But the cash disadvantage means they could have won more.

"If you're not outspending the other side, you're probably leaving some races on the table "¦ that if you really made an all-out push, you could probably pick up," said Andy Sere, a House GOP strategist.

It's not just the money either that's holding the GOP back. With cash on hand, Democratic groups like HMP have been able to reserve their ad time far in advance—a major tactical advantage as it, the DCCC, and Democratic campaigns themselves try to align their spending without legally coordinating with one another.

"It is frustrating because the House Majority PAC reserved their TV so early," said one House GOP strategist. "And so the DCCC had a clear sense of when they were going up and where they were going up. So it's literally like a symphony. The DCCC goes down, and the next day the HMP goes up. On our side, it's last-minute, and there's no sort of road map for anyone to follow."

The GOP hasn't taken the fundraising challenge lightly. The party, operatives say, has made every effort to convince donors that they should focus more of their giving on the House. That was the impetus, sources say, of NRCC Chairman Greg Walden's declaration in May that the House GOP would win 245 total seats, a bold prediction that exceeded the expectations of most independent analysts. The hope was that such a lofty goal would show the House had greater ambition than just holding its majority.

Other arguments abound: A bigger majority, especially if it's won in swing districts, would give House Speaker John Boehner a larger number of members to work with while he battles the conservatives within his own ranks. Some GOP operatives also have argued that the party needs to win as many seats as it can now, in case a Hillary Clinton-led wave wipes away the Republican majority in 2016.

But more than any other argument, House Republicans are telling donors that they're the one thing in Washington they can count on. A Senate majority is no guarantee, and if it falls through, the GOP will once again depend on the House to block the Democratic agenda. As one GOP donor put it: "When we come up one shy, and Obama's ramming s--t through, who are the guys stopping it? It's us."

Whether money starts to flow to House outside groups in the last two months of the campaign is still uncertain. Democrats are certainly nervous about the possibility, saying it would take just a handful of mega-donors to erase the GOP's disadvantage.

But there's mounting skepticism among some Republicans that the money will ever arrive, especially given the increasingly heated Senate battles in at least six to eight states.

"The sexiness is just not there," said the House GOP donor. "Help us add six seats? It's not as exciting as watching Harry Reid pack boxes and move out of the majority-leader suite."