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Defining the House Playing Field

The news that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved more than $35 million worth of air time in 31 districts across the country gives us our first real sense of what the House playing field might look like this fall.

The initial ad buy, which represents the earliest stage of the cat and mouse game that the two House campaign committees will play with one another in districts around the country between now and Nov. 4, is -- despite its size -- somewhat on the cautious side.

Of the 31 districts, 11 are currently held by Democratic incumbents while nine are currently controlled by GOP members. The DCCC also bought time in 11 open seats -- 10 of which are held by Republicans. Add it all up and House Democrats are on offense in 19 races and playing defense in 12.

Compare that to the latest predictions by neutral prognosticators and it's clear the DCCC has adopted the "better safe than sorry" mantra in this initial expenditure. (A full chart of the races and the amount being spent on each is after the jump.)

The Cook Political Report, which sports a fancy new Web site re-design, carries 33 total Republican seats and 19 Democratic seats in its most competitive category. Just seven Democratic seats are ranked as "toss ups" (the most vulnerable) while 14 Republican districts are rated "toss ups." Even four Republican-held seats (Illinois' 11th district, New York's 13th, New York's 25th and Virginia's 11th) are rated as "leaning Democratic" by Cook.

Stu Rothenberg and his Rothenberg Political Reporthave similar ratings with 16 Republican districts ranked as "toss ups," compared with just nine Democratic seats.

(A sidenote: If you are a true political junkie, you shouldn't live without either of these sites. Charlie and his team as well as Stu and his counterpart Nathan Gonzales are the best of the best when it comes to handicapping the races for Congress. Subscribe if you can; reading the free content on both sites is a must.)

Why would the DCCC be as cautious in terms of exploiting what seems almost certain to be a broad playing field filled with opportunities?

A few reasons.

First, this is simply the initial buy in a series of significant expenditures on television that both parties will make over the coming months. (In the 2006 election, the DCCC independent expenditure operation spent $55 million on television alone, a number that is sure to increase given the committee's fundraising success -- $47 million on hand at the end of May.)

Second, the goal of any campaign committee is to first shore up its potentially vulnerable incumbents. The only way to ensure that members are fully invested (read: donating) to the campaign committee for cycles to come is to assure them that if they ever were to find themselves in a competitive contest that the party organization would be there for them. It's why the DCCC is slated to spend $1.7 million for Rep. Harry Mitchell in Arizona's 5th, $1.6 million for Rep. Baron Hill in Indiana's 9th and $1.5 million for Rep. Tim Mahoney in Florida's 16th.

Third, it's important to remember that while the DCCC has reserved this time, they have not yet spent the money. The dollar figures and even the districts in which ads are run can be -- and are -- shifted up until the last days before the buy begins. This ad buy then should be seen as a starting point for House Democrats but should not be taken as static measure of which districts they believe are most vulnerable.

The broad point that political junkies should take from this initial buy is that Democrats find themselves in an unique position heading into the fall -- with a massive financial edge.

While the DCCC ended May with $47 million in the bank, the National Republican Congressional Committee had just $6.6 million left to spend. Such a financial disparity means that Democrats not only will be able to protect their own incumbents and go after vulnerable Republican members and open seats, but also can move money into late-breaking races where a few hundred thousand dollars can make the difference between winning and losing. Republicans, on the other hand, can -- maybe -- protect their own but as of today have almost no capacity to go on offense anywhere in the country.

In that context, the DCCC's initial ad buy is nothing but a warning shot across the Republican bow. And, there appears to be plenty more where that came from.

Targeted Seat Breakdown

* An ad buy of 1000 points means the average viewer will see the ad 10 times during a given week.

 11  Dem Incumbents    9  GOP Incumbents    11  Open Seats  

District Incumbent Early Buy Amt. Early Buy Pts.
AK-AL Young (R) $586K 4,000
AZ-01 Renzi (R) - Open $1.7 M 4,400
AZ-05 Mitchell (D) $1.7 M 4,400
CO-04 Musgrave (R) $667K 2,000
CT-04 Shays (R) $697K 2,200
FL-16 Mahoney (D) $1.5 M 9,400 (multiple mkts.)
FL-24 Feeney (R) $1 M 3,000
IN-09 Hill (D) $1.6 M 10,800 (multiple mkts.)
KS-02 Boyda (D) $1.2 M 16,200 (multiple mkts.)
KY-03 Yarmuth (D) $659 K 4,000
LA-06 Cazayoux (D) $723 K 5,000
MI-07 Walberg (R) $1.5 M 10,800 (multiple mkts.)
MI-09 Knollenberg (R) $1.1 M 3,200
MN-03 Ramstad (R) - Open $1.4 M 5,000
MO-09 Hulshof (R) - Open $941 K 10,000 (multiple mkts.)
NC-08 Hayes (R) $1.6 M 9,250 (multiple mkts.)
NH-01 Shea-Porter (D) $564 K 450
NJ-07 Ferguson (R) - Open $1.8 M 2,400 (mostly cable)
NM-01 Wilson (R) - Open $1.3 M 5,000
NM-02 Pearce (R) - Open $1.2 M 5,900 (multiple mkts.)
NV-03 Porter (R) $916 K 3,000
NY-13 Fossella (R) - Open $1.3 M 4,000 (mostly cable)
OH-01 Chabot (R) $928 K 4,300
OH-15 Pryce (R) - Open $1.2 M 5,000
OH-16 Regula (R) - Open $1.3 M 5,000
OR-05 Hooley (D) - Open $1.2 M 5,000
PA-04 Altmire (D) $554 K 3,200
TX-22 Lampson (D) $1.1 M 2,200
TX-23 Rodriguez (D) $707 K 4,000
VA-11 Davis (R) - Open $1.3 M 1,800
WI-08 Kagen (D) $ 475 K 5,000

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 11, 2008; 3:33 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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Colorado's 4th will be the final race that will make the state officaily blue.

Posted by: Rolf | July 12, 2008 11:14 PM | Report abuse

Chris ... go out and visit the Colorado in August. Get away from the DC humidity and see why Marilyn is a dead woman walking in the Colorado 4th.

Posted by: bradcpa | July 12, 2008 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Look at that teeny-tiny buy in NH-01. Dems may be playing defense there, but it looks like they're not going to have to play too hard.
"It's all in your Mind"

Posted by: Julia Kelly | July 11, 2008 6:16 PM | Report abuse

First off, Sandy must chill. It's the weekend -- cool off.

Now, to the DCCC -- I would *love* to see how the map of districts the DCCC will be targeting affects issues like healthcare that will be on the agenda after January. Paul Krugman's OpEd piece in the NYT on this today was incisive. Have a look if you get a chance.

Here's a question for the wonk/ette in all of us: does a blog entry like this make you *so* glad CZ took an extra day's vacation at the beginning of the week?

Thanks, CZ, it will be fun looking at these numbers.

Posted by: Julia Kelly | July 11, 2008 6:10 PM | Report abuse

Because this was as informative and meaty a piece as any wonk or wonkette could ever want, Sandy's outrage is curious. Perhaps Sandy can post facts and figures that dispute that the Ds are pending big bucks in these races, but I suspect Sandy would just rather be outraged.

Thanks for a good one, Chris.

Posted by: MarkInAustin | July 11, 2008 5:17 PM | Report abuse

As The Fix says, this is merely a shot across the bow. The DCCC will certainly put resources into places like NY-26 (open, Reynolds-R) and PA-10 (Carney-D), maybe even WA-8 (Reichert-R) if Burner decides to keep running. I think we'll see more buys after better polling starts coming out.

Posted by: mnteng | July 11, 2008 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Wow. What an informative article. Thanks, Chris.

PS Grow your beard back.

Posted by: Terry | July 11, 2008 4:52 PM | Report abuse

So once again the WAPO Head Democrat and
Obama Shill Chris the village idiot is out
showing how totally ignorant and out of
touch with reality he is again. Please FIRE
this creep!

Posted by: Sandy 5274 | July 11, 2008 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Great gameplan for the dems looks like the GOP's clueless as usual.

Posted by: Peter | July 11, 2008 4:26 PM | Report abuse

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