The Republican National Committee, growing nervous over the prospect of Democrats' winning a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, is considering tapping into a $5 million line of credit this week to aid an increasing number of vulnerable incumbents, top Republicans say.
With party strategists fearing a bloodbath at the polls, GOP officials are shifting to triage mode, determining who can be saved and where to best spend their money.
And with the House and Senate Republican campaign committees being drastically outspent by their Democratic counterparts, and outside groups such as Freedom's Watch offering far less help than was once anticipated, Republicans are turning to the national party committee as a lender of last resort.
A decision is imminent because television time must be reserved and paid for upfront, and available slots are dwindling.
A representative for the RNC would neither confirm nor deny that it was considering the move.
The RNC and National Republican Senatorial Committee are legally prohibited from discussing an "independent expenditure" campaign by the RNC for Senate races, including the content of the ads or where they run. Independent expenditure campaigns are run by a separate unit within the national committee, one "walled off" from the rest of the organization. But RNC strategists can deduce from the NRSC buys, as well as public polling, where their help is needed.
NRSC officials did not directly address the issue of an RNC-funded ad campaign for Senate races, but they said they had worked closely with their RNC counterparts throughout the cycle.
Both the NRSC and DSCC are allowed to spend limited funds directly on Senate races, but spend the bulk of their money on their own TV ad efforts in targeted states. During this cycle, the NRSC has spent heavily in Minnesota, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Mississippi, among other states.
GOP sources emphasized they would not be diverting money from, who they promised would continue to enjoy a steady stream of ads from the party's independent expenditure arm. The party raised a record $66 million last month, and McCain is increasingly relying on RNC funds. "We're not giving up on McCain," said a top GOP source. "We're still going to do everything we can there because his margin and what he does affects these races." A senior Republican said: "We're much better off having a competitive presidential ticket."
But that the party would use new money to block a Democratic triumph in the Senate rather than boost the odds of its presidential nominee speaks volumes about what many Republicans think is still salvageable. And some in the GOP, especially those working on House and Senate races in which their candidates' poll numbers swoon during the financial crisis, are increasingly agitated about money being spent on what all observers, including McCain, acknowledge is an uphill fight on top of the ticket.
"They should pull the money from McCain like [former RNC Chairman] Haley Barbour did in '96, when Dole slid away, and funnel it to save some Senate and House seats as best they can," said one longtime GOP strategist who is working on congressional races.
The RNC tried a similar "firewall" strategy late in the 2005-2006 election cycle, hoping to save GOP Senate seats in Ohio, Missouri and Tennessee. The RNC dumped millions of dollars into that effort only to see Democrats take two out of the three seats on their way to winning control of the Senate.
The RNC has also been running TV ads in several House districts, according to GOP and Democratic sources. Incumbents in both chambers who were previously seen as safe are now perceived as slipping away. But to ensure at least one bulwark against total Democratic control, GOP officials are more inclined to focus their resources on the Senate.
"There are seven or eight [seats in danger]," a top Republican said of the upper chamber. "What's it going to be a week from now?" Party officials see GOP Senate seats at risk in North Carolina, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota, Mississippi, Alaska, Oregon and Georgia.
The financial situation for Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) has gotten so precarious that she has announced she will be spending her own money on the campaign. Democratic third-party groups have spent millions attacking her as an ineffective senator, and her poll numbers have cratered.
According a source familiar with this week's ad buys, the DSCC is outspending the NRSC by just under $30 million in targeted states. The committee has been using an e-mail appeal for a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority to raise money, relying on such Democratic Party figures as former President Bill Clinton and Sens., and Barbara Boxer.
But the Obama-Biden campaign has refused to provide millions of dollars in help to the DSCC, turning down a direct appeal by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and arguing that it needs the money itself to beat McCain.
John Bresnahan and Josh Kraushaar contributed to this story.
By Jonathan Martin