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With time running out to find A-list candidates for targeted races — the first filing deadline hits today — House Democrats and Republicans have both scored some recruiting successes this cycle but continue to fall short of their own expectations.
The National Republican Congressional Committee’s performance on the recruiting front remains lacking — at least when measured against NRCC Chairman Tom Cole’s (Okla.) contention that up to 60 Democratic seats are in play because they are in districts that voted for President Bush in 2004.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, with a mind-boggling $26.7 million cash advantage over its Republican counterpart and its majority status as an attractive selling point, has failed to recruit big-time candidates in some key GOP-held districts that favor Democrats politically.
That could prove critical given DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen’s (Md.) claim last week that he expects the number of GOP-held seats he considers in play to grow by an unspecified but significant amount by Election Day 2008. The DCCC is currently targeting 44 Republican-held seats.
In an interview, Van Hollen said once several, if not all, of the vulnerable Democratic incumbents are in good enough shape to be moved off of the DCCC’s “Frontline” program, his committee will begin targeting additional Republican seats.
“We have 40 seats, at least — and growing — where we have good challengers in place,” he said. “That makes for a very big playing field this time around.”
Of the 60 seats Cole constantly trumpets as ripe for a Republican resurgence, the NRCC has found credible candidates to run in just 23, according to a Roll Call analysis that examined political gravitas and fundraising performance of each recruit to date.
In many of the remaining 37 seats on Cole’s list of potential targets, the Democratic incumbent is currently facing no GOP challenger at all — let alone one deemed less than credible. Some of the Democrats the NRCC envisions targeting are veteran incumbents who have defied the political trends in their districts for many years.
However, NRCC officials maintain that the committee has surpassed what it set out to accomplish on the recruiting front.
“We have exceeded expectations on the candidate recruitment front, and in a ‘change’ election, our Republican challengers will be in a strong position to compete,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said. “This is the best class of Republican recruits that we have fielded in a generation, and come this time next year, the DCCC will find themselves having to defend their embattled incumbents because the Democrat-led Congress will have already squandered any shred of good will of the American people.”
Talking a Good Game
Early in the cycle, the DCCC talked a good game about flipping the eight Republican-held districts that voted for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 White House election.
But after failing to recruit candidates in three of those seats — and four others held by potentially vulnerable Republican incumbents — the DCCC has adjusted its sights somewhat. Still, the DCCC has a much higher success rate of finding candidates for its targeted seats than the NRCC does.
Several of the House’s 435 seats feature entrenched, popular incumbents and are therefore beyond the capacity of the DCCC and NRCC to exert any sort of influence. But many seats are within the committees’ reach and are crucial to both sides’ plans — whether the Republicans and their strategy for taking back the House, or the Democrats and their blueprint for building a true governing majority.
As a percentage of each committee’s stated goals, the DCCC is doing a better job of recruiting than is the NRCC, as it has failed to recruit candidates that appear credible in only three of the 44 Republican-held districts it is promoting as vulnerable to a Democratic takeover, according to Roll Call’s analysis.
Both Cole and Van Hollen face factors beyond their control that inhibit their ability to register perfect recruiting records. And in most states, the committees have until the end of the first quarter of 2008 to recruit candidates for their targeted races.
But with the first candidate filing deadline hitting today in Illinois, the ability of the DCCC and NRCC to redefine the 2008 playing field is beginning to dwindle.
The DCCC can be excused for its inability to unearth a viable Democrat willing to take on Rep. Mike Castle (R) for Delaware’s at-large seat — although the committee talked boldly about finding a good challenger soon after last year’s election, even sending staffers to the First State to pitch multiple individuals on running.
But Castle is a popular former governor, and although Kerry handily beat Bush there in 2004, the Republican’s moderate politics is a good fit for the state. Additionally, many Delaware Democrats have their eye on the 2008 gubernatorial race, as Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) is term-limited. Other statewide constitutional seats attractive to Democrats also are opening up, in part because of the jockeying to replace Minner.
Similarly, the NRCC can be forgiven for its failure to recruit a top-tier challenger for Democratic incumbents such as Rep. Ike Skelton in Missouri’s 4th district and Rep. John Spratt in South Carolina’s 5th district. These two Democrats are serving their 16th and 13th terms, respectively, and have practically achieved iconic status in their home districts.
Falling Off the Table
The DCCC has suffered recruiting failures — the seats of Reps. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) and Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) to name two — but has taken these districts off of its target list, at least temporarily. Additionally, if the DCCC is to fulfill Van Hollen’s goal of targeting additional Republican-held seats down the road, the bar to measure the Democratic committee’s success will get higher.
However, the NRCC appears to have the steeper hill to climb, with credible candidates in little more than one-third of the 60 seats it considers as potentially in play.
The committee’s recruiting successes range from former state Assemblyman Dean Andal (R), who does not have a primary and is set to challenge freshman Rep. Jerry McNerney (D) in California’s 11th district, to attorney Tom Rooney, who is running in a five-way Republican primary for the right to challenge Rep. Tim Mahoney (D) in Florida’s 16th district.
The NRCC also has found solid candidates in Democratic-leaning districts that did not vote for Bush in 2004, including Connecticut’s 5th district, where state Sen. David Cappiello (R) is taking on freshman Rep. Christopher Murphy (D), and in New Mexico’s 1st district, where Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White (R) is bidding to replace Rep. Heather Wilson (R), who is running for Senate.
NRCC Blues in Red Districts
But as the NRCC seeks to flip the 16 seats it needs to regain the majority in 2008, there are several districts that voted overwhelmingly for Bush in 2004 where the committee is lacking a candidate — never mind a candidate deemed credible enough to win.
Those districts include, but are obviously not limited to, South Dakota’s at-large seat, where Bush won in 2004 with 60 percent of the vote; Utah’s 2nd, where Bush won with 66 percent; Tennessee’s 6th and Virginia’s 9th, where Bush won with 60 percent; Kentucky’s 6th, where Bush won with 58 percent; and Texas’ 17th — his home district, which he won with 69 percent of the vote.
Additionally,the NRCC is short on candidates in districts that are held by Democratic freshmen but lean Republican and should tilt right even more so in a presidential year. The failure to gin up candidates for these seats could prove deadly to the Republicans’ hopes of flipping the House over the long term, as often an incumbent is most vulnerable during his first re-election bid.
The potentially shaky Democratic freshmen who have yet to draw credible Republican opposition include Rep. Joe Donnelly in Indiana’s 2nd, who faces no challenger as of yet; Rep. Zack Space in Ohio’s 18th; and Rep. Michael Arcuri in New York’s 24th.
However, Democrats have also failed to recruit in some districts they’ll need to win if their plans to significantly expand their majority are to be realized.
Of the 44 seats on its target list, the DCCC has yet to produce a challenger that has proven credible in three districts: Florida’s 25th, where the incumbent is Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R); Illinois’ 6th, where the incumbent is freshman Rep. Peter Roskam (R); and New York’s 3rd, where the incumbent is Rep. Peter King (R).
Still, 41 of the DCCC’s targeted seats do have challengers who are at least credible, and in some cases, rate significantly higher. Those seats include Wyoming’s Republican-leaning at-large seat, where the 2006 nominee who came extremely close to defeating Rep. Barbara Cubin (R) last year, Gary Trauner (D), is running again.
Also among the DCCC’s strong candidates are former Arizona state Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick for the 1st district seat being vacated by Rep. Rick Renzi (R); former Minnesota transportation commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg (D), running against Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) in the 6th district; and former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes (D), running against Rep. Sam Graves (R) in Missouri’s 6th district.