The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, broke fundraising records by bringing in $51 million for the second quarter. So far this election cycle, the CLF, which can accept unlimited donation amounts, has raised $93 million and has $71 million on hand.
This haul surpasses what both the Republican National Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee have available to spend and dwarfs the $51 million Ryan raised for the entire 2016 election cycle. In contrast, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s House Majority PAC has raised $25 million through May and has about $17 million on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission.
“We’re going to have the resources necessary to compete,” said Jeb Fain, communication director for Pelosi’s PAC. He was unfazed by the GOP’s war chest: “We have real momentum and we’re on track to raise significantly more money in 2018 than in 2016.”
To date, CLF has reserved $60 million in television ads in 20 of 34 targeted swing districts; however, by law it cannot directly coordinate with the campaigns on the message being pushed in those spots. But buying ad space this early has allowed the PAC to get a preferred lower rate and will make it harder for the Democrats to book prime airtime slots this fall. In the 2016 election, CLF did not purchase any television time until August, and most of it was in the last 30 days of the election. Out of the 34 targeted CLF races, 18 of the districts have been allotted more than $2 million in reserved television ad space, and in expensive media markets it goes up to $4 million in some districts.
In addition to the television ads, the CLF has dispersed about $250,000 per district for a full-time field office in all 34 targeted seats.
“We started knocking on doors in February 2017 and have reached 15 million voters,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the CLF. After 2016, Ryan decided to create a new approach to spending super PAC dollars and wanted a hyper-local approach with a strong ground game for voter turnout. The CLF developed a new data department to identify local issues that swing voters in purple districts care most about. Once the targeted issues and voters have been identified, the CLF sends its army of volunteers and paid canvassers to engage voters face-to-face.
Fain’s not worried about CLF’s new approach, “The other side’s candidates and campaigns suffer from a serious lack of grassroots support, so they’re trying to manufacture a façade of enthusiasm.”
“In the end, all politics is local,” said Bliss. In swing districts, where the margin of victory in contested House races is often less than 10,000 votes, winning over moderates is the key to success. And so the CLF is pushing local, less partisan issues to turn out independent voters. “Local issues are often more relevant to swing voters, who are results oriented and less focused on the national noise,” said Bliss.
On such targeted race is that of Omaha Congressman Don Bacon (NE-02), a Republican who won his first election in 2016 by 3,500 votes. This swing district went for Barack Obama by one percentage point in 2008, Mitt Romney won it by seven points in 2012, and Donald Trump won by two in 2016. Before the May primary, it was marked as a toss-up with moderate Democrat Brad Ashford seeking a rematch after his 2016 close loss. However, primary winner Kara Eastman has since been endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren as well as progressive groups. The CLF discovered that the top local issue for 40,000 voters in the district is funding for Offutt Air Force Base.
Bliss told RCP that Republican precinct workers have knocked on 250,000 doors discussing the importance of the base, Bacon’s service in the Air Force, and his support of the military. The CLF has also reserved $1.6 million in television airtime in this district.
The most expensive race for the CLF is that of first-term Bucks County Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), for which the PAC has already reserved $4.1 million in television ads in the expensive Philadelphia media market. Fitzpatrick is running against a progressive self-funder, Scott Wallace, in a swing district Hillary Clinton won by two points and that has been reconfigured via court-ordered redistricting to bring in more registered Democratic voters. Volunteers and paid college students have knocked on 750,000 doors to pitch voters on Fitzpatrick’s work on bipartisan legislation to address contaminated drinking water resulting from chemicals used at a nearby military base.
With fundraising going strong, the CLF is planning to expand its target list soon. “As the primary process wraps up, there will be a lot more competitive races to support, especially in swing districts where the Democrats have nominated ultra left-wing candidates,” said Courtney Alexander, communications director of the CLF.
But is the CLF’s money and ground game enough to keep the Republican majority in the House?
“History shows in wave elections that these large outside funding networks often are not the decisive factor in close races,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball Report. “The party that spends the most doesn’t necessarily win.”