While the ongoing war in Iraq has slowed fundraising and other overtly political activities, behind the scenes both parties are actively pushing forward with efforts to recruit top candidates for next year’s races.
Members involved with the House and Senate campaign committees said last week that the war has had little effect on recruitment and, in fact, has raised the caliber of candidate interested in running.
“The war is not really having an impact on candidate recruitment,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.). “It is creating an increased sense of importance for the federal government.”
Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), who is heading up recruiting efforts for the National Republican Congressional Committee, echoed that sentiment, saying that the war and ongoing focus on rooting out terrorism has led many to view public service in a new light.
“People are more in tune with the idea of service,” Sweeney said. “It’s bringing a higher caliber of people to the table.”
While the NRCC has broken the process down into regions, Sweeney said the committee is still largely in the organizational phase.
“That’s not to say that I’m not recruiting,” he said. “I am.”
Sweeney also said that Democrats are saddled with a heavier burden when it comes to recruiting, because the party has to expand the field of competitive House seats in order to have any hope of regaining the majority. After losing six seats in the 2002 elections, Democrats now have to pick up 12 seats to take control of the House.
House Democrats are in the middle of a methodical recruitment process highlighted by regular meetings with state delegations, according to Matsui.
Rep. Bart Gordon (Tenn.), who is heading the DCCC’s recruitment program, has already met with colleagues from Indiana, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia to discuss potential targets as well as pick their brains for strong candidates.
Potential Republican targets in those states include Reps. Chris Chocola (Ind.), John Hostettler (Ind.), Ginny Brown-Waite (Fla.). Robin Hayes (N.C.), Max Burns (Ga.) and Phil Gingrey (Ga.).
“We are taking a much more Member-based approach to recruitment this year,” said Gordon. “We are encouraging them to take the lead.”
Matsui also met last week with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The CBC is pushing to play a larger role in candidate recruitment this cycle. In the past, CBC leaders say, Members have not been brought into the process until candidates have already essentially been selected.
“We want to have an opportunity to have some say early on,” Cummings said. “We ought to have more say.”
Cummings has also met with Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) to discuss how “we as a caucus help him recruit an African-American to run.”
Cummings said he has been “extremely pleased” with Corzine’s efforts so far.
One of the best opportunities for Democrats to recruit a black candidate is the open seat race in Georgia. While no Democrat has yet to announce for the seat of retiring Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), two black statewide officials are among the potential candidates mentioned.
Additionally, in Illinois, there are two black candidates in a crowded Democratic primary field vying to take on Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R).
While Corzine hasn’t had to lift a finger to get candidates to run in Illinois, recruiting in other states has not been as easy.
Corzine met with Rep. Brad Carson (D-Okla.) on Wednesday to discuss a possible open-seat candidacy if Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) decides against running for a fifth term.
“If we got him that would be a 10-strike,” Corzine said.
Carson was elected in a 2000 open-seat race and is the lone Democrat in the Sooner State’s federal delegation. In the event Nickles leaves the Senate, former Rep. J.C. Watts is the leading Republican candidate.
For his part, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) said the war has had little impact on GOP recruiting efforts.
Allen noted the party is already well-positioned in states where some of the most competitive races are likely to unfold, such as Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. GOP Reps. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Richard Burr (N.C.) are currently the Republican frontrunners in those races.
Still, the party is holding out for decisions from top-tier candidates in South Dakota, North Dakota, Washington and Nevada, where announcements are not likely to come until after the war concludes.
Allen said the only adverse impact of the war has been that potential candidates have had to scale back fundraising efforts. Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), who is weighing a challenge to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) next year, announced last month that he would temporarily suspend fundraising after the outbreak of war.
Allen said that for the most part the conflict in Iraq has not changed his strategy.
“I’m trying to get good, quality people regardless,” he said.
Both Corzine and Matsui also agreed that the war had not changed the type of candidates they are looking for nationwide.
“We are trying to look for nontraditional candidates,” said Corzine. When asked whether he was actively pursuing self-funding candidates, Corzine demurred.
“We are not ignoring potential self-funders but it is not one of the things we have to check off of a list,” he said.
Recruiting wealthy candidates willing to spend significant personal resources was a stated strategy of the committee under former Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.).
In the 2000 cycle, Torricelli recruited Corzine, a former CEO of Goldman, Sachs & Co., as well as Sens. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), heir to the Dayton-Hudson retail fortune, and former RealNetworks executive Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). Unsuccessful Nevada Senate candidate Ed Bernstein also gave a large personal contribution to his campaign that cycle.
Some Democratic strategists have suggested that a return to the Torricelli strategy is the party’s best hope of retaking the Senate majority given the new strictures put in place by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Under the law campaign committees are barred from raising and spending soft money, which the DSCC had grown increasingly dependent on over the past several cycles.
Matsui claims that the DCCC has not yet made a decision on “whether we should profile candidates,” although he added that candidates with some level of experience in elective office would be preferred.
Rep. Martin Frost (Texas), who chaired the DCCC in the 1996 and 1998 cycles, believes that more candidates with military backgrounds will be sought in the 2004 cycle.
“Both parties may wind up recruiting candidates with substantial military backgrounds,” he said.
Matsui said his emphasis has been on “making sure we are vetting candidates earlier in the process.” Last cycle Democrats were plagued by scandal-tarred candidates, including attorney Champ Walker in Georgia’s 12th district and businessman George Cordova in Arizona’s 1st, among others.
“We are making sure candidates can withstand an attack and know they are going to be attacked,” Matsui said.
Meanwhile, Democrats also argue that the heightened focus on the goings-on in Washington, D.C., coupled with voters’ concerns regarding the economy and other domestic matters make it a fertile time for recruitment.
“There is a lot of uncertainty, especially about the economy,” Matsui said. “Democratic candidates feel like there is more opportunity in 2004.”
Former Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), who was chairman of the DCCC during the 1991 Gulf War, said that the Democrats are better positioned for next year than they were then. Fazio recalled that Democratic recruitment was hampered that cycle by the overwhelming popularity of the first President Bush at the war’s end.