Even if There Is an Anti-Republican Wave in 2004, Democrats May Not Be Able to Ride It to Shore
Despite being faced with several gaping holes in challenger recruitment, a fundraising disadvantage and, so far, the absence of a clear party message, House Democrats maintain that they will have the needed manpower and resources to mount a competitive charge for control of the chamber next November.
But while an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the present situation in Iraq and a dip in President Bush’s once soaring poll numbers have provided some openings for possible Democratic pickups, even the most optimistic members of the party admit that it will take what one consultant called a “perfect storm” alignment of candidates and issues to put Democrats back in power.
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a leading party recruiter, concedes that Democrats — facing a 12-seat deficit — need “some kind of good fortune to take back the House” in 2004.
He also notes that previous changes in party power have usually occurred when the public wasn’t expecting it and were not obvious a year before the election took place.
“We are in a volatile situation,” Hoyer said at a recent political briefing.
One Democratic consultant argued that for the first time in several cycles, there is audible “grumbling” coming from voters who on some level appear to be unhappy with the status quo.
“This is the first time in about seven or eight years that you see a consistent wrong track number,” the consultant noted, referring to polling that asks respondents how they feel about the current direction of the county. “Those kind of feelings have not been there for a couple of years.”
Whether the desire for change will reach enough of a fever pitch to produce major upsets and an anti-incumbent surge at the polls next November remains to be seen.
But even if dissatisfaction with the ruling party in Washington, D.C., grows, the right combination of well-funded challengers and competitive districts would have to converge before House Democrats could ride any partisan wave to power.
Looking at the current shallow bench of recruits and reduced size of the playing field, that scenario appears unlikely at this point.
“You have to have both to make the perfect storm,” the consultant acknowledged. “You have to have grumbling … and you have to have people ready to take the field.”
Compounding the Democrats’ problems is the re-redistricting that took place earlier this year in Texas and Colorado. Unless the courts overturn the new boundaries in those states, Rep. Bob Beauprez’s (R) tossup district in Colorado has become fairly safe GOP territory, and as many as seven Texas Democrats could be in danger.
In a memo to fellow Democrats last week, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) sought to reassure Members that the party is in good shape when it comes to their overall competitive position a year out from the election.
“We only have 12 seats to go — a deficit that history and the current political environment indicate is surmountable,” Matsui wrote.
He explained that the party got off to a slow start in recruiting due to the lingering sting of the 2002 elections (when the president’s party gained House seats in the first midterm election of his term for the first time in 68 years), the war in Iraq and resulting surge in Bush’s popularity.
Since the beginning of the cycle, Democrats have acknowledged that they must expand the playing field to have any hope of retaking the House. Hoyer predicted that Democrats would have to net 14 or 15 seats to ensure control in the 109th Congress.
That number could shrink if Democrats are successful in a handful of possible special elections next year. Both parties are already gearing up for a special election fight in Kentucky’s 6th district, after Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R) was elected governor last week. Competitive special elections could also take place in Louisiana and South Dakota next year.
Although party leaders and strategists routinely cite a 40-seat battleground of targeted races in 2004, Democrats had fewer than a dozen challengers who were raising money in these districts at the end of September, Republicans are quick to point out, while 16 GOP challengers in key districts were sitting on $100,000 or more.
“Our challengers continue to impress,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) said recently, touting the third-quarter fundraising performance of the committee’s 2004 recruits. “If the Democrats intend to expand the playing field, they had better do it soon.”
But since July, according to Matsui, the DCCC has seen an influx of new people who have expressed an interest in running. And he contends that despite Republicans’ clear advantages, they too have had recruiting trouble and have resorted to touting “retread candidates” who have run before.
In the effort to expand their majority, Republicans are again targeting Democratic incumbents who have managed to hold on to GOP-leaning seats. Among them are Reps. Ken Lucas (Ky.), Jim Matheson (Utah) and Dennis Moore (Kan.), all of whom face likely rematches with their 2002 opponents. Freshman Reps. Rodney Alexander (La.) and Jim Marshall (Ga.) won narrow victories last cycle and are also being targeted by the NRCC.
Among GOP incumbents, the Democrats’ top targets are Reps. Max Burns (Ga.), John Hostettler (Ind.), Bill Janklow (S.D.), Rick Renzi (Ariz.) and Rob Simmons (Conn.), all of whom have challengers the DCCC is touting.
Aside from Stephanie Herseth, who lost to Janklow last year and is running again, Democrats are especially enthusiastic about Boston Celtics scout Jon Jennings, who is challenging Hostettler in Indiana’s 8th district.
Larry Bird, the Hall of Fame basketball player and ex-Celtic who is now president of basketball operations of the Indiana Pacers, is scheduled to host a fundraiser for Jennings in Indianapolis Tuesday night before the Celtics-Pacers game. Pacers’ owner Herb Simon and Chief Executive Officer Donnie Walsh will also attend.
Democrats are also high on their chances of knocking off Burns, who represents the most Democratic territory among all vulnerable GOP incumbents. The party has two announced challengers in the 12th, although Athens-Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow (D) appears to be the frontrunner at this point.
In Arizona, Democrats also face a primary with Paul Babbitt, brother of former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, 2002 nominee George Cordova and 2002 candidate Diane Prescott, who had more money in the bank on Sept. 30 than all other Democratic challengers vying to face Renzi next year.
According to the Matsui memo, the DCCC has commitments from more than 20 candidates “who have either announced or will announce their intention to run … in our target areas.”
Meanwhile, many vulnerable GOP freshmen like Reps. Mike Rogers (Ala.), Jim Gerlach (Pa.), Ginny Brown-Waite (Fla.), Jon Porter (Nev.) and Chris Chocola (Ind.), all of whom — except Porter — won with 51 percent or less in 2002, have no announced challengers yet.
All of those Members were elected in districts heavily altered during last cycle’s reapportionment and redistricting process, which only served to further shrink the competitive playing field.
Both parties sought to shore up their current districts and create pickup opportunities in new and re-drawn open seats. In the end, Republicans came out the overall winners in the process, picking up three GOP-tailored seats in Florida, winning seats drawn by Democrats in Georgia and Alabama and taking new tossup districts in Arizona (Renzi’s), Nevada (Porter’s) and Colorado (Beauprez’s).
One of the factors credited with fanning the prevailing Republican wind in 1994 was a “lag effect” of the 1990 redistricting, where Republicans made gains by turning out Democrats elected to GOP-leaning seats in 1992, a strong Democratic year. Freshmen accounted for almost half of the Democratic defeats in 1994.
Last cycle’s redistricting created little to no competition in large states like California, New York and Illinois, which also hinders Democratic attempts to expand the playing field.
Going into the 1994 election, one-third of the 30 Democrats in the California delegation were defending seats in swing districts, and in the end the GOP came up with a three-seat gain.
Likewise, in presidential battleground states like Michigan and Wisconsin, redistricting appears to have snuffed out a lot of the competition on the Congressional level.
Little Turnover, Few Gains?
While redistricting has certainly shrunk the current playing field, the fact that both parties have managed to keep turnover at low levels so far this cycle also appears to work against Democratic efforts to find more seats to contest.
As it stands now there are 15 open seats being vacated by Members who are either retiring or running for other offices. But only five at the most are considered potentially competitive districts, again thanks to redistricting, and only three of those are currently being contested.
While Washington’s 5th district and Colorado’s 3rd both lean Republican, Democrats believe they can compete with top-flight candidates. They are high on former hotel chain CEO Don Barbieri in Washington, but they have yet to lure their top potential candidates into the Colorado race.
Meanwhile, the most competitive seat to open up so far this cycle is in Pennsylvania, a key battleground in next year’s presidential race. In the swing 15th district being vacated by Rep. Pat Toomey (R), Democrats have yet to field a candidate, while Republicans have coalesced behind state Sen. Charlie Dent (R). The district voted Democratic in the 2000 presidential contest and is considered a prime pickup opportunity if a top candidate is recruited.
In 1994, when the “Contract With America” and the Republican Revolution swept 82 new Members into office, the GOP made their largest gains in picking up open seats, where Democrats were defending 31 of the 52 districts without an incumbent. At the same time, no Republican incumbents lost in 1994.
The Republican tide that year also swept out several entrenched Democratic icons like then-Speaker Tom Foley (Wash.), 18-term Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (Ill.), who had been recently deposed as Ways and Means chairman, 21-term Rep. Jack Brooks (Texas), then-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and 18-term Rep. Neal Smith (Iowa), none of whom appeared to be vulnerable a year out from the 1994 election.
On the current list of Democrats’ targets, 12-term Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) may be perhaps the longest serving. But Shaw, who won one of the closest re-election battles of 2000, has been tested and won before and Democrats are still trying to coax their top choice, state Rep. Stacy Ritter, into the race.
Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.