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Democrats’ Preparation for Open Seats Has Paid Off

In the political game of recruitment, it pays to be on offense.

And that’s what Democrats say gave them a big advantage heading into the 2008 cycle, with an electoral playing field marked by a plethora of open-seat House races. When Republicans lost control of Congress, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee officials said they prepared for a huge wave of GOP retirements and recruited especially aggressively in those House districts.

With just six months until Election Day, 39 House Members have given up or will be giving up their seats. Most of them are Republicans, presenting Democrats with a golden opportunity to pick up more seats.

“We anticipated that there might be a number of Republican incumbents who might be thinking about it and we wanted to recruit good challengers in those cases,” DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said.

Van Hollen named at least three districts in which he said his committee pre-emptively ran radio advertisements and automated calls that he claims played a part in pushing a longtime GOP incumbent toward retirement.

In New Jersey, veteran Rep. Jim Saxton (R) had his first tough electoral fight in a long time in 2006 against a badly underfunded challenger. Democrats recruited state Sen. John Adler into this year’s race early on, but Van Hollen said they also ran radio ads attacking Saxton’s vote against expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program before he announced his retirement.

“We were convinced [Adler] could win even against the incumbent and he got in on that basis,” Van Hollen said. “But he clearly understood that his getting into the race would cause the incumbent to think about retirement.”

Van Hollen said the DCCC had a similar strategy against GOP Reps. Richard Baker (La.), who has since resigned, and Jim Walsh (N.Y.), who is retiring at the end of this term.

Former Capitol Hill aide Dan Maffei (D) is taking his second stab at the 25th district in New York, but this time he is favored to win the open seat, while two credible candidates battle it out for the Republican nomination. Meanwhile in Louisiana, Democrats say state Rep. Don Cazayoux (D) is a perfect fit for the conservative district, and he was leading controversial former state Rep. Woody Jenkins (R) in late polls leading up to Saturday’s competitive special election, which took place after this edition went to press.

Republicans, however, reject the claim that Democrats were able to push some GOP Members into retirement.

“If the DCCC thought they could claim credit for the sky being blue, they would do it,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said. “Their argument just isn’t based in reality.”

Unfortunately for Republicans, the NRCC cannot actively recruit in a sitting Member’s district, even if rumors persist that a retirement announcement is imminent. And given the large proportion of GOP retirements this cycle, that left Republicans at a disadvantage on the recruiting front.

Nonetheless, Republicans looked at retiring Rep. Darlene Hooley’s (D-Ore.) swing district when rumors persisted that she might be leaving Congress in 2008. And in that district, Republicans have found two solid and wealthy recruits: former state GOP Chairman Kevin Mannix and 2006 nominee Mike Erickson.

The formula for predicting a retiring Member usually isn’t difficult. Democrats targeted Republicans who had won by the skin of their teeth in 2006, such as retiring Reps. Deborah Pryce (Ohio) and Mike Ferguson (N.J.). Both parties look at Members who lead subcommittees, those rumored to be considering a statewide bid and districts where the demographics are changing quickly.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out,” one Republican operative said.

Meanwhile, in a year in which Democrats should be playing defense after picking up 30 House seats in the previous cycle — two-thirds of which were in GOP-leaning districts — it appears they have tilted the scale in their favor because of all of the open-seat races. And that puts Republicans on defense all over the country.

But House Republicans like to claim a few scalps of their own. In Nevada’s highly competitive 3rd district, where Rep. Jon Porter (R) is a constant DCCC target, the leading Democratic candidate, former Clark County prosecutor Robert Daskas, abruptly dropped out of the race in late April, leaving Democrats scrambling for a suitable replacement.

The NRCC, according to a source, sent out multiple Freedom of Information Act requests on Daskas.

When it comes to open-seat races, House Republicans have had to rely on their departing Members to have a good candidate waiting in the wings.

“The one thing you do always hope is that the Member has built some kind of farm team,” said one GOP operative with knowledge of the recruitment process.

In Ohio’s 7th district, for example, longtime Rep. David Hobson (R) endorsed state Sen. Steve Austria (R), who represents his old district in the state Capitol, to replace him. Austria’s candidacy immediately chased the one Democrat who could have competed for Hobson’s open seat out of the race.

That stands in contrast to the neighboring 18th district, where the Republicans put up a weak replacement candidate in 2006 after indicted incumbent Rep. Bob Ney (R) dropped out of the race. This cycle, despite the heavy Republican lean of the district, the GOP farm team has come up short in its quest for a top-notch challenger to freshman Rep. Zack Space (D).

Nonetheless, Republicans say they have put together a quality team of new Republicans to fill the shoes of their many retiring Members. In Ohio, Minority Leader John Boehner (R) played a huge role in his home state recruiting rising-star state Sen. Steve Stivers to carry the GOP banner in Pryce’s 15th district.

“This election cycle will mark the emergence of a new generation of Republican Members of Congress,” Spain said. “Top-tier candidates like Steve Stivers, Darren White [in New Mexico’s 1st district] and Pete Olson [in Texas’ 22nd district] will hopefully add to the ranks of young, energetic Republican leaders like [Reps.] Peter Roskam, Kevin McCarthy and Eric Cantor.”

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