Dull and Duller On the House Recruiting Front

Posted May 21, 2003 at 3:24pm

OK, so it’s not exactly breaking news. But it’s worth noting as we head into Memorial Day, the traditional beginning of the summer: The fight for the U.S. House of Representatives is nonexistent.

Oh, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has done what it could to complain about the GOP’s Hill agenda and to whine (appropriately, I might add) about Republican redistricting efforts in Colorado and Texas. [IMGCAP(1)]

And the DCCC and the National Republican Congressional Committee are raising money to bankroll candidates — if, in fact, they have any.

But it’s the paucity of candidates that is hard to ignore, and the end of the war in Iraq hasn’t exactly opened the floodgates.

The Republicans have a handful of ’02 losers who are either intent on another run or seriously considering one. Geoff Davis, who drew 48 percent against Rep. Ken Lucas (D) in Kentucky’s 4th district, is back, as is airline pilot Adam Taff, who threatened Rep. Dennis Moore (D) in Kansas’ 3rd district. So is John Swallow, who came within a point of upsetting Rep. Jim Matheson (D) in Utah. Calder Clay, who lost a close one to now-Rep. Jim Marshall (D), is looking again in Georgia’s 3rd.

North Dakota at-large challenger Rick Clayburgh is looking at another run against Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D), but the Republican, who wouldn’t be able to run for re-election as state tax commissioner if he runs again for Congress next year, seems torn.

On the Democratic side, Dan Wofford, who lost an open-seat race to Republican Jim Gerlach, is “seriously considering” taking another shot at the suburban Philadelphia district. Julie Thomas is mentioned again for a possible rematch with Rep. Jim Leach (R) in Iowa’s 2nd district seat, and Joe Turnham is looking at a possible third run in Alabama’s 3rd, where he would again tangle with freshman Rep. Mike Rogers (R).

The question, of course, is whether some of these repeat candidates are dreams come true or nightmares for the committees.

There is heavy GOP activity in the 5th district of North Carolina, which Rep. Richard Burr (R) is vacating for a Senate run, and in Georgia’s 6th, now an open seat following Republican Johnny Isakson’s decision to run for the Senate. A handful of GOPers are in the race in Michigan’s 7th, where Rep. Nick Smith is calling it quits.

And in Missouri’s 3rd, which Rep. Richard Gephardt is giving up in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, a number of Democrats are already off and running.

But compared to the past few cycles, the roster of top-tier recruits is thin. In fact, candidate recruitment for the House is slower, duller and less interesting than anything I’ve seen in at least a decade.

By May 1999, candidates like Mike Ross (D-Ark.), Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), Eleanor Jordan (D-Ky.), Scotty Baesler (D-Ky.), Pat Casey (D-Pa.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Nancy Keenan (D-Mont.) and Susan Davis (D-Calif.) were already causing a stir.

Two years ago at this time, when redistricting was clouding the House picture, Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.), Jill Long Thompson (D-Ind.), Mike Michaud (D-Maine), Jack Conway (D-Ky.), John Norris (D-Iowa), Martha Fuller Clark (D-N.H.), Dario Herrera (D-Nev.), Mark Shriver (D-Md.), Jon Porter (R-Nev.), Rick Weiland (D-S.D.) and Clayburgh were all emerging as challengers or open-seat hopefuls.

Since I can’t use “the war” much longer to explain the thin early field of top-flight House candidates, I’ll have to blame non-competitive districts, the lack of districts being held by the “wrong” party, and the cycle’s overall uncertainty.

Democrats in conservative and Republican seats, such as Reps. John Spratt in South Carolina and Bud Cramer in Alabama, have proven their mettle and scared away potential challengers. The same goes for Republicans such as Jack Quinn (N.Y.), Jim Nussle (Iowa) and Jim Saxton (N.J.).

Even retirements aren’t likely to generate races the way they once did. Before redistricting, California Republican Rep. Doug Ose’s retirement would have been a big deal, since President Bush carried Ose’s old district with only 51.8 percent over Al Gore. But under the new lines, Bush would have won the district with better than 55 percent, a gain of more than 3 points.

Uncertainty over the actual shape of the 2004 political environment could continue for months.

With Bush’s job approval sitting above 60 percent but the economy remaining a question mark, potential Congressional hopefuls can’t be certain what kind of year 2004 will be. Democrats think Bush’s numbers will sink, but they aren’t yet ready to risk their futures on it. And what if the economy rallies?

Even the parties’ political allies seem underwhelmed about the fight for the House in 2004. Organized labor, for example, is more focused on a different House — the White House. And if Democratic interest groups aren’t fully committed to the battle for Congress, who can blame Democratic candidates for hanging back?

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