Savaged for months by relentless anti-impeachment attack ads and apparently done waiting for more national party backup, two of the most vulnerable House Democratic freshmen are spending precious resources on TV ads to defend themselves.
Reps. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.) and Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) launched sizable ad buys this week, airing positive messages touting their bipartisanship and legislative achievements to refute Republican spots that cast them as unaccomplished and obsessed with impeaching President Donald Trump.
This kind of spending by congressional candidates months before incumbents typically go up on the air is a sign of just how much the rash of anti-impeachment attack ads has rattled swing-seat Democrats and comes amid mounting frustration at the party's House campaign arm's tepid response to the GOP's barrage.
”We have about $300,000 of attack ads being spent against us right now on complete and utter lies," Brindisi said. "I’m not going to let that go unresponded, so I want to talk about some of our accomplishments to set the record straight. We’re taking the bull by the horns and doing it ourselves."
After the House veered toward impeachment last fall, members have watched in horror as Republicans have pummeled them with millions of dollars in attack ads. While Democratic groups have provided some air cover, the disparity in several key districts is growing untenable.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this week launched its first major TV advertising campaign of the cycle, but its spending decisions have incensed some House Democrats who feel the buy does little to help members in their Frontline program for vulnerable incumbents who have seen the most fire from the GOP.
The committee's 30-second spot will run on national and local cable networks. It knocks Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for blocking Democratic attempts to lower prescription drug costs.
"It’s clear that the DCCC is leaving its members who are in the most competitive districts completely and utterly out to dry," said one House Democrat granted anonymity to speak candidly. "We should not see Frontliners feeling the need to spend this much money so far out from an election. This can no longer be a dog-and-pony show."
"The DCCC has to have the sole focus of protecting our seats and winning more," the member said. "So we can leave the national ad buys to other people. That’s anathema to what the DCCC’s mission should be."
The committee has placed national buys in past cycles, though the majority of its advertising budget goes to boost members on the air in individual districts, usually in the late fall or early summer.
And unlike the torrent of Republican ads, the DCCC spot does not mention any Democratic freshmen by name. They also are not in running specifically in local cable markets that correspond to the districts of their most endangered members, including Cunningham, Brindisi and Reps. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.), Jared Golden (D-Maine), Kendra Horn (D-Okla.) and Ben McAdams (D-Utah).
Asked why the ads were not running in more swing districts, DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos pushed back against the suggestion that their buy was meant to rebut the anti-impeachment ads.
“This is no direct response to anything that the Republicans are doing,” she said. “They’ve got a losing message on impeachment. We know it’s not working."
House Democrats plan to make health care a big part of their 2020 messaging, and a national ad campaign helps cement that narrative. The buy also underscores their plan to turn McConnell into a boogeyman, particularly in districts where Trump is popular.
“I was sent here to fight to lower the cost of health care and prescription drugs," Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.), who holds a seat Trump narrowly won, said in a statement. "And if this ad buy helps remind Mitch McConnell to do his job and start passing the hundreds of bipartisan bills that are on his desk, then the DCCC will have been successful.”
Still, the buy is hard for some vulnerable members to stomach given that they have made entreaties for help from Democratic leadership, particularly in smaller, rural markets where it’s cheaper to run ads.
In at least eight top battleground seats — held by Cunningham; Golden; Torres Small; Horn; and Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.); Elaine Luria (D-Va.); Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.); Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) — Republican outside groups have aired over 1000 more gross rating points than their Democratic counterparts, according to data from the ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics. That means the average broadcast viewer has seen a GOP ad at least 10 more times than a Democratic ad, a huge messaging advantage.
“These are concerning numbers,” said one Democratic operative who works with Frontliners. “It weakens members when there’s expensive spending against them in the off-year. It’s like venom being dripped into their veins by an IV.”
The biggest GOP spender is American Action Network, a nonprofit group aligned with House Republican leadership that has booked about $10 million on anti-impeachment ads in Democratic-held swing districts, according to a Republican familiar with the spending. And after record fundraising in the off-year, the group is flush with cash to continue its onslaught.
Democratic air cover has come largely from the House Majority Forward, a nonprofit with ties to Pelosi that has run $7 million worth of ads since August. Their spots don’t mention impeachment, instead touting individual members' work on issues such as health care.
The new ads by Cunningham and Brindisi highlight their work on local issues. Cunningham has worked to secure a ban on off-shore drilling, a major priority in his coastal district. Brindisi helped push through legislation that will boost sales for a flatware manufacturer in his upstate New York seat.
Brindisi’s ad even uses footage of Trump — who won his district by 15 points — and notes that he signed four of Brindisi’s bills into law. In his 30-second spot, Cunningham slams the American Action Network for using a cookie-cutter attack ad in multiple districts.
In total, three swing-seat members have launched notable early ad buys. Freshman Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.), went on the air late last year with a similar positive message.
Democratic freshmen have enjoyed massive fundraising in the off-year and can sustain an early advertising offensive — but not indefinitely. Democratic national groups, including the DCCC, also raised record amounts in 2019. The DCCC brought in $125 million, and House Majority PAC, Democrats' flagship super PAC, entered 2020 with $37.5 million in cash on hand.
Still, Republican outside groups have millions in the bank, which they've already been deploying against vulnerable Democrats.
AAN and its sister super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, just announced a massive 2019 fundraising haul of $68 million, larger than any previous off year. CLF has $28 million on hand, more than it has ever had entering an election year.
Spending by those two groups will offer crucial aid for Republicans because their congressional candidates and House campaign arm have seriously lagged behind their Democratic counterparts in fundraising.
But House Republican leadership are already warning candidates that they can't rely on other groups to win their races.
"The individual campaigns need to raise more money," Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), chairman of the GOP's campaign arm, said at an event earlier this month. “They cannot expect somebody else is going to do it for them."