How Many Anonymously-Funded Campaign Ads Does It Take To Sweep Republicans Into A House Majority?

November 18, 2010 10:03 am ET — Fae Jencks

Promoting blatant falsehoods and funded by anonymous money, the political operations backed by longtime GOP operatives like Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie, Scott Reed, and Norm Coleman helped lay the groundwork for Republicans to retake the House of Representatives this November. Where the RNC failed to provide the necessary resources to expand the GOP's playing field in the midterm elections, these right-wing organizations coordinated to pick up the party establishment's slack, creating an unexpectedly large list of competitive races.

Across the country, outside spending contributed to widening the GOP's midterm playing field. While the RNC struggled to build a cohesive campaign strategy, conservative groups, including the so-called "shadow RNC" — funded anonymously and unabashed about airing outrageously deceptive ads — targeted seats that otherwise would not likely have been in play. In fact, the RNC's outgoing political director listed 21 races in which the RNC lacked proper funding to fully compete. Luckily for the RNC, outside groups aired over 14,000 ads in 16 of those 21 races — stepping in to aid Republican candidates where the RNC could not.

Overall, conservative organizations outside the party structure were heavily active (defined as putting over 1,000 ads on the air) in 24 congressional districts between August 1 and Election Day. Of these, 16 races shifted in ranking according to Cook Political Report's Competitive Race Charts between July 22 (or, where applicable, the first ranking following the state's primary) and November 1. All 24 of these races began either favoring Democrats or as toss ups, and while Republicans only won just over half of theses races (with one still undecided), the deluge of advertising against Democrats in these congressional districts forced a wider playing field, expanding it from 33 toss ups on July 22 to 50 by November 1.

Of the 14 races listed as toss ups on November 1 that saw Republican ad counts in the thousands, eight were previously categorized as favoring the Democratic candidate. An influx of advertising in districts like Nevada's Third also shifted a handful of toss up races into the leaning Republican column (all of which were won by Republican candidates). That race was listed as a toss up by Cook on August 17, but after a massive six-week advertising blitz featuring 1,280 ads aired by three different outside conservative organizations, the race was officially categorized as Lean Republican on November 1.

The case was similar in districts such as New Mexico's First, where over 1,265 ads aired in the district helped to turn a relatively safe Democratic seat into a tight toss-up race in which incumbent Rep. Martin Heinrich bested challenger Jonathan Barela by a mere 6,800 votes.

In 2010's heavily anti-incumbent electoral environment, which seemingly built more and more momentum as the weeks passed, it is impossible to attribute major shifts in each congressional district solely to the ads that aired there. These ads weren't the magic bullet that ensured dozens of Democratic defeats, but they certainly made the Republicans' target much, much bigger by bombarding voters with their misinformation and contesting races the establishment couldn't.