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Democrats ramp up spending in blue districts as GOP sees red wave forming

Republicans are making gains in districts where voters favored President Joe Biden by big margins in 2020.
Reps. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., and Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y.
Reps. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., and Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y. AP

From New York to California, Democrats find they have to spend big in the midterms homestretch to defend incumbents in blue House districts that President Joe Biden easily won two years ago.

The crush of last-minute spending in deep-blue states and Democratic strongholds, detailed through data from the ad-tracking firm AdImpact, underscores just how much the political winds have shifted in Republicans’ favor and how the GOP — buoyed by well-funded super PACs — has expanded the battlefield in the final sprint of the campaign.

In Southern California, Rep. Julia Brownley is making personal appeals to Democratic colleagues to send her campaign cash as her internal polls show a neck-and-neck race with her GOP challenger, two sources told NBC News.

Democrats have spent millions of dollars, raised from party entities and outside groups, to protect Rep. Jahana Hayes, the former Connecticut Teacher of the Year who cruised to decisive victories in 2018 and 2020.

And the House Democrats’ campaign arm last week deployed hundreds of thousands of dollars to save its chairman in a Biden district north of New York City.

It’s not all bad news for Democrats. Recent polling suggests Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas is viewed favorably by a majority of voters, and the party is making new investments into GOP-leaning seats like Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, just south of Tacoma. But in other parts of the country, Democrats have retrenched by pulling out of races against some vulnerable Republicans, like California Reps. Mike Garcia and Michelle Steel, and shifting that money to protect candidates running for seats once believed to be safe.

“Things are not great. Everyone knows that,” said one House Democrat who has seen outside groups spend millions of dollars in their blue district.

“I think some of these races are tight and so they’re spending. I mean, a lot of these guys in these districts haven’t spent any money. So if you could spend a few bucks and shore it up, then why not?”

But spending money to shore up those races — many of which were not considered nearly as competitive just months ago — adds to the challenges Democrats face in a tough election cycle where Republicans need to flip just five seats in order to take control of the House. And it has Democratic lawmakers like Rep. Dina Titus, a top GOP target despite her Las Vegas district’s blue tilt, pleading with her party and supporters for help.

“Now do you believe me?” Titus tweeted after a new poll showed her tied with her GOP challenger.

A year ago, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, who is poised to become speaker if Republicans flip the House, predicted that his party would pick up more than 60 seats in the 2022 midterms. But this summer, after the Supreme Court abortion ruling energized Democratic voters, McCarthy tamped down expectations, and some Republicans braced for smaller gains in November.

Now, with voters turning their attention back to issues like rising inflation and crime, some Republicans forecast a wider margin of victory on Nov. 8. One House Republican linked to the House GOP’s campaign arm predicted a more than 25-seat net gain, while another lawmaker who’s been campaigning for colleagues across the country said the party will win 250 seats, a 38-seat pickup.

Dan Conston, head of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with McCarthy, said on a Politico podcast last week that the party will pick up 20-22 seats given how few swing districts there are after redistricting.

Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, chairman of the House GOP's campaign arm, said Republicans are poised for big wins on election night.

“In a matter of weeks, Democrats have gone from crowing they were going to hold the House to spending millions in double-digit Biden seats,” he said in a statement to NBC News. “Republicans have the candidates, message and momentum to make history on Election Day.”

A New York Times/Siena College poll released Oct. 17 showed that economic concerns — driven by persistently high inflation — are the most important issues to likely voters. Survey respondents most worried about the economy favored Republican candidates over Democrats by a 2-1 margin.

In Titus’ district, 50% of those surveyed said economic issues were most important, compared with 36% who said societal issues like abortion rights and democracy were most important.

“At the heart of it, when I’m standing in the grocery store or if I’m filling up at the gas station, every single person who I talk to says [the economy] is the number one thing that’s keeping them up at night,”  Rep. Kat Cammack, a Florida Republican, told NBC News. “And I think that right there explains why this red wave is going to be so big.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm for House Democrats, said it isn't throwing in the towel. Officials say they've known for a long time that 2022 would be a challenging cycle, and they have supported Hayes and other vulnerable Democrats while closely monitoring races for other incumbents, like Brownley.

“Nearly a week from Election Day, House Democrats are well positioned to retain the majority despite a Republican gerrymandered map and MAGA Republicans’ dark money-fueled campaigns. We’ve taken nothing for granted and it’s paid off," said DCCC spokesman Chris Taylor.

"From New York to Alaska to ruby red Kansas, Democrats and the mainstream middle have surprised the pundits and prognosticators because voters know Democrats will protect women’s freedoms, invest in public safety and invest in an economy that works for all.”

One of the most prominent examples of Democrats rushing to save an incumbent in blue Biden territory took place this past week when the DCCC said it would spend $605,000 on ads to protect its own chairman, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, as GOP groups pour millions into the race for his opponent. After the DCCC announcement, a veterans super PAC said it would spend $1.2 million on ads backing Maloney, and first lady Jill Biden will stump with Maloney on Sunday in his new district, which backed Biden over former President Donald Trump by 10 percentage points in 2020.

Here’s a look at deep-blue seats where Democrats are spending:

California’s 26th District: In recent days, Brownley began reaching out to colleagues asking them to send campaign contributions after an internal poll — which previously showed her up 7 points — showed her dead even with her opponent, according to a lawmaker who received a call from Brownley. The colleague said they promptly cut a check. On Friday, the DCCC and Brownley booked a joint $92,000 ad buy, while Emily's List reserved $500,000 in ads for Brownley last week through Election Day. Brownley’s district, north of Los Angeles, favored Biden over Trump by nearly 20 points in 2020.

Connecticut’s 5th District: Democrats have already spent $4.5 million to re-elect Hayes in a district that backed Biden 54.6% to Trump's 43.9% in the last election. Between now and Election Day, Democrats said they plan to spend an additional $1.5 million in ads to combat comparable spending by Republicans. A recent poll showed former state Sen. George Logan leading Hayes 48% to 47%, within the margin of error.

New Jersey’s 5th and 11th Districts: Democratic-aligned groups last week booked $2.3 million in TV ads backing Rep. Mikie Sherrill and another $2.3 million for Problem Solvers Caucus Co-Chair Josh Gottheimer. Both are moderate Democrats whose districts favored Biden over Trump by double digits in 2020. Politico recently reported that a portion of the total $21 million that former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has donated to the House Majority PAC was slated for Sherrill and Gottheimer, who both backed Bloomberg in his White House bid two years ago. A source familiar with the situation confirmed the spending plans to NBC News.

Rhode Island’s 2nd District: While Rhode Island hasn’t had a Republican member of the House since the 1990s, the race to succeed retiring Rep. Jim Langevin has been competitive since the Sept. 13 primary. Biden won the district by nearly 14 points in 2020, but Republicans believe former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung can defeat Democratic General Treasurer Seth Magaziner. There’s more than $2.7 million booked in ad spending in the race by both sides between this past Friday and Election Day.