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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Why Spend Money Now?

This story from CQ Politics struck me:

Despite frequent statements by President Bush and his political allies that U.S. troops are making progress in the Iraq war, the conflict remains highly unpopular among most Americans. A CBS News-New York Times poll conducted July 20-22 showed 69 percent of respondents disapproved of Bush's handling of the war, and 66 percent said the war was going somewhat to very badly.

And Democratic strategists for the 2008 congressional elections clearly believe Iraq is an issue that works to their party's benefit -- as underscored by radio ads, calling for a "new direction" in Iraq, that the Democrats' national House campaign organization is running during the August congressional recess in 12 districts represented by Republicans who are being targeted for defeat next year.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) on Wednesday began airing radio ads during "drive time" in the 12 districts. These include Connecticut's 4th, where veteran Republican Rep. Christopher Shays narrowly survived tough races in 2004 and 2006 against Democrat Diane Farrell in which the incumbent's support for Bush's Iraq policy was a central issue.

Reid Wilson covered this yesterday at the RCP Blog, noting that the NRCC is spending money as well.

What's going on here? Is this not ridiculously early? Well - yes and no.

Yes insofar as these ads are not going to be what convince people to vote for the party running them.

But the answer is also no. Congressional contests only become competitive when challengers emerge who can make them competitive. They can raise funds, they can put together a quality campaign organization, and they can offer the public a well-crafted message.

Unfortunately - in my opinion - there is only so much the party can do in this regard. The party can offer lots of help to candidates who have reached a certain threshold of competitiveness. However, the limitations of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act make it so that they cannot make a non-competitive candidate competitive.

And so, recruitment is incredibly important. The parties need to find candidates who can do a good bit of the campaign prep stuff on their own. They are both working very hard right now to induce candidates who could make a quality run to run. This is harder than it sounds. Lots of candidates run just for the hell of it, or to promote an issue, or something like that. But quality candidates run because they want to win. And if they think they cannot win, they will not run. This is why the Democrats had many more quality challengers than Republicans did in 2006. Quality Republican challengers decided to refrain because they wanted to win, and they assessed that 2006 was not a year for them to win.

These ads can serve both parties' recruitment interests. What these ads do is soften up these incumbents' approve/disapprove numbers. Both parties can then take private polls and show them to would-be challengers, arguing, "Look at these numbers. And this was just after a few thousand bucks on radio ads. Imagine what we could do to him/her next year!" This will make quality challengers more likely to get into the race because they'll start to think that victory is more likely.

And for the races in which the parties have already recruited a quality candidate - the ads can help in fundraising. The polling taken after the election can be shown to would-be donors as a way to convince them that the party's candidate can win if they just write that nice check.

-Jay Cost