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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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The Hill Committees at the Five Month Mark

Recently, the FEC reported the fundraising activities through May 31 of the six national party committees.

The DCCC has raised $26 million, the DNC has raised $25 million, and the DSCC has raised $18 million, for a total of $69 million.

The Republicans have raised $72 million all told. The RNC has pulled in $40 million, the NRCC $23 million, and the NRSC just $9 million.

Once again we see what we saw earlier this month - the NRSC is lagging well behind its Democratic counterpart. Some of this is undoubtedly from the fact that there are 22 Republicans incumbents who are drawing money to themselves and away from the NRSC. But, as I argued, not all of this is explicable by that. In particular, the Senate Republican committee seems to be lagging in individual contributions - pulling in only $6 million. This might be a sign of structural problems at the committee.

While the RNC has out-raised the DNC, pulling the GOP ahead of the Democrats, this is a presidential year - and we thus should not expect as much coordination between the national committees and the two congressional committees. The national committees will be busy working on the presidential election.

This, then, is a sign that the congressional Republicans are - overall - lagging relative to the Democrats. Exactly what does this mean? Over at The Fix, Chris Cillizza argues the thinks that this spells major trouble for the GOP, noting the following:

Remember that all four of the congressional committees are first and foremost about incumbent retention. In order to get members to raise and donate money to the committees, the organizations must show a commitment to defending incumbents no matter the cost. Witness the millions the DCCC poured into four lost cause races in Texas in 2004 -- simply because the races all featured incumbents and it was impossible for the party to walk away from them even though the races were probably unwinnable no matter how much money is spent.

So, while Republicans' financial positioning seems likely to limit their ability to do much beyond protecting their incumbents, Democrats seem on pace to expand the playing field thanks to their financial edge.

I think there is a great deal of truth here. It is fair to say that there is an incumbency "bias" at the Hill committees. Endangered incumbents are given more aid than challengers with similar prospects of victory. The Hill committees are prepared to support incumbents even when all seems lost. Compare the NRCC's response to AZ 08 and IN 08 last cycle. They pulled out of the former the moment that Randy Graf won the nomination, but they supported John Hostettler to the bitter end. Mr. Cillizza makes a great point as to why this is the case. The Hill committees must show loyalty to endangered incumbents so as to enjoy the support of the members of the caucus, who are able to transfer their own campaign cash to them. Incumbents are advantaged in a different way, too. Safe incumbents can count upon a good amount of committee contributions, even if they are not endangered. Challengers who are as likely to lose as incumbents are to win do not get that kind of cash.

However, I do not think this justifies Mr. Cillizza's characterization of the "congressional committees (as) first and foremost about incumbent retention." Recent research has shown that, while there is a slight pro-incumbent bias in the NRCC and DCCC, both are remarkably strategic in their giving patterns.

For instance, in the year that he cites - 2004 - total expenditures (direct contributions, coordinated expenditures, and independent expenditures) by the NRCC for incumbents totaled $13.9 million. The same amount for non-incumbents totaled $36.7 million. Thus, the NRCC spent more on challengers than on incumbents. The story is the same at the DCCC. In 2004, it spent $9.1 million on incumbents, and $27.3 million on non-incumbents. Most of the difference between the two is due to coordinated expenditures and independent expenditures. While many safe House incumbents get a few thousand dollars from the NRCC or the DCCC, each party is much more strategic with its independent expenditures and coordinated expenditures. (Typically, direct contributions only account for a tiny portion of total party spending - just 1.1% in 2004 for each House committee.) What is more - most of the congressional campaign committees' non-financial resources are dedicated to non-incumbents because they are the ones who lack connections to donors, campaign professionals, &c.

Generally, the way I view the congressional campaign committees (the subject of my dissertation) is as Temple University's Robin Kolodny does in her excellent book on the subject, Pursuing Majorities. Their principal goal is to pursue a majority for their caucus. By pooling the "Washington resources" of the caucus party together, they solve a collective action dilemma for each member, who would be made better off to be in a majority but who cannot bear the costs of attaining it. While it is true that there is a not insignificant "incumbency bias" that can skew this goal - this nevertheless is each congressional campaign committees' major goal.

One might say that the congressional campaign committees as strategic pursuers of majorities that are "saddled" with a slightly higher-than-normal aversion to risk. They generally put the money where it will make a difference, but they nevertheless tend to believe that "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" more than most of us do. Thus, they slightly over-fund incumbents with direct contributions.

So, Mr. Cillizza thinks that these fundraising discrepancies mean trouble for the Republicans in their pursuit of majorities. I think he might be on to something, but I think he overstates the point.

Another point. It is important to note that the NRSC is the outfit that is really in trouble. The NRCC is not nearly as worse off. It is inappropriate - in many regards - to lump these two committees together, which Mr. Cillizza does in his piece, and which many are inclined to do as well. The Senate and House Hill committees should be understood as independent entities. They have separate goals. Sometimes they coordinate. Sometimes they do not. Both will occasionally help the other out to maximize contributions or coordinated expenditures to particularly endangered incumbents. Both will also presumably coordinate messages. But each committee is autonomous. And so, I am not sure that lumping the two GOP Hill committees and comparing them to the Democratic committees offers maximum clarity. For, if we separate them out, we see that the NRSC is in much worse shape than the NRCC. The NRCC and the DCCC are about even in that regard for the cycle. This is not a great sign for the NRCC, which historically outraises the DCCC - but there is a great difference between its position vis-a-vis the DCCC and the NRSC's position vis-a-vis the DSCC.

-Jay Cost