Outside groups -- mostly party establishment -- playing big in GOP's vulnerable districts

Roll Call named Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.) the most vulnerable incumbent in the House. The DCCC and the liberal House Majority PAC have spent $2 million benefiting his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

By: Ashley Balcerzak and Jack Noland

With scorching news about Donald Trump dominating the media, along with his equally blistering pushback, GOP members of Congress have had to make some tough decisions about where to position themselves vis-a-vis the top of the ticket.

And situation's trickle-down volatility has done them no favors, helping to ensure that the latest Roll Call list of the 10 most vulnerable House members is entirely made up of Republicans in districts from Florida to Nevada.

As it turns out, outside spending groups are pretty excited about these 10 districts, too. Much of the trench warfare has been waged by established party vehicles on both sides: The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the liberal House Majority PAC, each of which has spent a large share of their resources on these 10 races. The NRCC has poured in $8.6 million out of the $28.5 million it has spent so far on independent expenditures, or 30 percent; the DCCC allocated $5.7 million of $22.5 million, or one-fourth of its independent spending to date; and House Majority PAC has spent nearly half of its $12.6 million in outlays, about $6 million. That's a lot of attention for these contests, considering that elections are being held for all 435 House seats.

It's late in the game, and the party vehicles are madly rearranging their spending plans depending on what their internal polling shows. In most of these 10 races, the parties apparently have decided the train has left the station one way or another.
The NRCC, however, is supplying some last-minute backup, reporting spending $3.1 million this week up to Oct. 13, ten times more than the two liberal bastions combined.
"Republicans are clearly on defense, even in traditionally uncompetitive Republican districts, because the map is expanding every day," said Jeb Fain, communications director for the House Majority PAC. The NRCC and DCCC didn't respond to requests for comment.
The Democratic groups have taken the opposite approach, reallocating resources to other states and investing only minimal amounts in these seats this week.
And the party's polling is showing some significant spreads: A DCCC-commissioned poll last week showed former Gov. Charlie Crist leading the GOP incumbent by a 50-39 percent margin in Florida's 13th district. In New Jersey's 5th, a DCCC survey found Democrat Josh Gottheimer beating Scott Garrett by 7 points, and in Florida's 7th, Democrat Stephanie Murphy appears to be besting John Mica by two points.
Previous liberal investments may have helped: Overall, the Democratic challengers in these 10 districts appear to be benefiting more from the outside cash, getting a boost valued at $18.6 million compared to $14 million in backing for the GOP incumbents.

But these Republican seats aren't the only races the GOP is fretting over: POLITICO reported that in the wake of the release of a recording of Donald Trump making lewd and aggressive comments about women, GOP groups poured $10 million into districts that historically have leaned Republican.

Jolly comes in as the nation's most vulnerable incumbent member of Congress. After running initially for the Florida Senate seat, Jolly dropped out in June, when incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio (R) -- his presidential hopes dashed -- joined the race.

Jolly, who represents Florida's 13th Congressional District, outraised his opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, $3 million to $1.1 million through June 30. But the Dems made a late push to help Crist; in fact, all outside spending in the race happened after Sept. 23. House Majority PAC and the DCCC spent a combined $2 million in the past month. House Majority PAC, a super PAC formed by a former DCCC official, has spent more trying to gain this seat than all others but one, that of GOP Rep. Scott Garrett in New Jersey. The group is largely funded by prominent Democratic go-to millionaires like Newsweb's Fred Eychaner, hedge fund manager Donald Sussman and architect Jon Stryker.

Jolly lacks equivalent establishment backing; party leaders seem to have abandoned him after he spoke out publicly against his colleagues for being obsessed with fundraising. His only outside help has been almost $300,000 spent by the super PAC People for Pinellas, which is largely funded by Miguel Fernandez, the founder of MBF Healthcare Partners.

Hardy sits in a tight spot; his 4th Congressional District in central Nevada voted for President Obama in both 2008 and 2012. He and his opponent, Democratic State Sen. Ruben Kihuen, had raised similar amounts as of June 30. While Hardy has not yet filed his third quarter report, due this weekend, Kihuen announced that he had raised over $570,000, bringing his total up to around $1.7 million.

Hardy has benefited from $1 million more in outside group support compared with Kihuen, though: $3.4 million to $2.4 million. Most of this comes down to the two parties' chief fundraising committees: The NRCC poured in all $3.4 million of the spending benefiting Hardy, and the DCCC ponied up $2 million to help Kihuen. 

Most of the smaller groups boosted Kihuen. The liberal pro-union Unite Here spent $240,000 to support the Democrat. And Hardy faced almost $100,000 in negative exposure by the Environmental Defense Action Fund, which doesn't disclose its donors, while a group funded entirely by George Soros, Immigrant Voters Win, spent $75,000 to benefit the Democratic contender.

If history is to be a guide, incumbent Guinta may have trouble keeping his New Hampshire seat. He and his opponent, Democrat Carol Shea-Porter, have traded off representing the first district since 2008, with the Democrat winning in presidential years and the Republican victorious in midterm elections. The two major party candidates had raised nearly equal money as of June 30, and independent Shawn O'Connor was close on their heels (within $100,000 of Shea-Porter).

Overall, the Republican incumbent has an advantage with outside forces, with around $800,000 in support, compared to the Democratic challenger's $93,000 in assistance. The NRCC made another late appearance, spending about $780,000 so far attacking Shea-Porter and boosting Guinta. (About $716,000 was spent in the last two weeks.) Granite Voices PAC, whose general consultant is a former executive director of the Republican State Committee, spent $48,000 against Guinta and $4,500 in support of his losing primary opponent, Richard Ashooh. On the left, Ocean Champions and the Sierra Club, both 501(c)(4) groups, pitched in $20,000 in positive messages for Shea-Porter.

Rep. Bob Dold

Dold, the incumbent in Illinois' 10th Congressional District, has a difficult race but plenty of cash on hand; he was sitting on more than $2.2 million after the third quarter deadline, the Chicago Tribune reported. The Republican and his Democratic opponent, former Rep. Brad Schneider, each pulled in more than $1 million between July and the end of September, they told the Tribune, bringing their totals up to $4.8 million and $3.8 million, respectively. As in the New Hampshire contest, Dold and Schneider have gone back-and-forth representing the district, which covers Chicago's northern suburbs.

The NRCC has spent $1.1 million to attack the Democratic candidate, almost all in the last three weeks, while House Majority PAC and the liberal End Citizens United PAC spent a combined $350,000 to tear down the GOP incumbent. The second largest outside force, after the NRCC, is the National Association of Realtors super PAC; it has spent $775,000 propping up Dold.

Rep. John Mica

Mica, another Floridian on the list, has served in Congress since 1993, and had outraised his Democratic challenger Stephanie Murphy about threefold as of June 30. But liberals arrived on the scene in full force: The DCCC, House Majority PAC and the pro-gun safety super PAC Americans for Responsible Solutions have supported Murphy with an additional $2 million in funds so far.

After the DCCC found Murphy besting Mica by two points, the group cooled its spending, going from $565,000 the first week in October to a big goose egg this week.

First-term incumbent Hurd narrowly unseated Rep. Pete Gallego in 2014 and now faces the Democrat again for the right to represent southwestern Texas' 23rd Congressional District. Hurd had collected a total $2.55 million by midyear, outraising Gallego by almost $1.3 million, but there has been significant outside spending in the race: The DCCC has laid out $1.6 million and the NRCC, about $1.3 million to support their candidates. The conservative PAC VIGOP has also pitched in $80,000 for Hurd, about 10 percent of all its spending this election. One the whole, outside spending picked up most in late September, when the DCCC and NRCC both disbursed more than $600,000 on the race.

The district is a volatile one. No incumbent has won reelection to the seat since 2008 and the district has had five different representatives in 10 years. Three leading elections predictors - Cook Political ReportSabato's Crystal Ball and Rothenburg & Gonzales - have rated the race a toss-up.

Curbelo faces off against Democrat Joe Garcia in Florida's 26th District, raising almost six times more than him as of June 30. Democratic leadership originally threw its support behind the former Miami Dade Democratic Chairwoman Annette Taddeo, who lost in the primary. Despite losing its preferred candidate, the DCCC has backed Garcia with $560,000 in independent expenditures and attacked Curbelo with another $1.4 million. The House Majority PAC joined in with $86,000 to help Garcia. The NRCC poured in resources of its own, tearing down Dems with $2.3 million.

In total, all outside players on the right outspent liberals, $3.1 million compared to Democrats' $2.4 million. On the left, money flowed from the Environmental Defense Action Fund ($450,000) and Soros' Immigrant Voters Win ($120,000). On the right, support came from American Unity PAC (funded largely by Elliott Management's Paul Singer) and ClearPath Action, whose largest donor is Jay Faison, founder of SnapAV.

While incumbent Poliquin raised $1 million more than his opponent through June 30, Emily Cain, the score evens out due to Democratic groups' $1 million independent spending advantage compared with their counterparts on the right. Spending by House Majority PAC, the DCCC and End Citizens United backing Cain in Maine's 2nd Congressional District has totaled $2.2 million, with the lone Republican group, the NRCC, spending $1.9 million on the other side.

While House Majority PAC went from spending $330,000 two weeks ago to zero this week, the NRCC continues to pour in funds, doubling its efforts from the first to second week in October. This is despite polls that show Poliquin leading the race by a hefty margin -- though they were taken in September, which in the current climate might as well be six months ago.

Rep. Rod Blum

While Blum has had a shaky relationship with the NRCC after he voted against Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) for speaker, the group has still anted up $980,000 in outside spending against his Democratic opponent, Monica Vernon, in Iowa's 2nd District. That's been supplemented by a few stalwarts of the right, including the Koch Brothers' FreedomWorks for America, the National Rifle Association and Club for Growth.

Vernon, on the other side, is receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in backing from multiple giants such as House Majority PAC, Women Vote! (EMILY's List's super PAC) and the DCCC. Blum has an edge of only about $20,000 with outside players, as the NRCC poured in $935,000 just this past month to try to get him over the finish line.

As of June 30, Garrett trailed his Democratic rival, Josh Gottheimer, by $1.5 million in fundraising. He's doing even worse with outside allies: Gottheimer gained $3.5 million in backing from big establishment players and the National Association of Realtors ($1.3 million) -- House Majority PAC and the DCCC have spent almost $2.1 million in total on independent expenditures. Garrett, meanwhile, has benefited from a mere $191,000 in similar spending by the anti-establishment Club for Growth and American Principles Fund, funded largely by Sean Fieler, president of Equinox Partners. He's seen no outside spending by the NRCC.

Garrett's distance from the NRCC shouldn't come as a surprise: the Republican infamously refused to donate to the group because it backs gay candidates. As POLITICO reported, a number of high-spending companies, including Goldman Sachs and State Farm, have since backed out of donating to Garrett's campaign.

Researcher Robert Maguire contributed to this post.