DCCC Memo Sees Reverse of ’94 Rout

Posted March 16, 2004 at 6:25pm

In a memo being circulated to his colleagues today, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Robert Matsui (Calif.) lays out a race-by-race blueprint that he argues will return his party to the majority in November.

The memo outlines what House Democrats have dubbed the “Campaign for a New Majority,” which debuted Tuesday night with a fundraiser feting Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) that raised roughly $2 million for the DCCC.

Matsui’s missive previews the prevailing national message Democrats hope to use in their targeted races as well as offers the first extensive look at the party’s much-ballyhooed efforts to widen the House playing field.

“People are ready for new leadership in Washington because the Republican government is clearly not working for ordinary Americans,” writes Matsui.

As for Democratic promises to broaden the number of districts in play and take the fight to the GOP this year, Matsui said that the DCCC has “30 strong candidates” in 27 Republican-held districts.

“As part of our effort to expand the playing field, we have been successful in recruiting candidates in Illinois’ 8th, Missouri’s 6th and Nebraska’s 1st and 2nd districts,” he added.

Each of these seats has shown a willingness to support Democrats at times in statewide contests, but they have not been seriously targeted in the past several cycles.

Matsui also touts Democrats’ chances in other seats not targeted in recent cycles, like Kansas’ 2nd district, Connecticut’s 4th district and Indiana’s 2nd district.

While Democrats have recruited candidates in each of these seats, they have not yet proven that GOP incumbents such as Reps. Jim Ryun (Kan.), Chris Shays (Conn.), Chris Chocola (Ind.) or Phil Crane (Ill.) are vulnerable to a challenge.

“I wish I could live in this fantasy world,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti. “If Democrats can tell us with a straight face that they believe they can knock off Chris Shays, then I’ve got some beachfront property in Atlantis I’d like to sell them.”

Forti added that in several of the Democrats’ top targets in 2002 — like Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers (R) — the opposition has been unable to recruit a single serious candidate.

“What’s also glaringly evident, besides pipedreams, from this list is who is not on it,” he said.

Matsui’s memo comes as the political world’s attention is largely focused on the intensifying battle between President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) and the increasingly competitive fight for Senate control in November.

Conventional wisdom throughout the cycle has dictated that House Democrats have little chance of picking up the 12 seats necessary to retake the majority.

Taking that sentiment head on, Matsui compares pundits’ underestimation of the Republican tidal wave in the 1994 elections to the current idea that Democrats have no chance of winning back the House.

“The lesson here is that elections are extremely hard to predict and there will be many important developments in this campaign between now and November,” said Matsui. “Democrats now need less than one-quarter of the 52 seats Republicans gained in 1994 to win the majority.”

Democrats are also hoping that competitive House special elections serve as an early predictor of public sentiment — as they did in 1994.

The party picked up Kentucky’s 6th district on Feb. 17 when Rep. Ben Chandler (D) resoundingly defeated state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (R).

“We won because of a strong desire for change across this heavily rural, conservative district and a strong anti-Bush sentiment among a significant portion of the electorate,” explained Matsui.

A second special election for South Dakota’s at-large seat is scheduled for June 1.

Stephanie Herseth, the Democratic nominee against then-Rep. Bill Janklow (R) in 2002, has a hefty name identification and fundraising advantage over state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R).

Not since 1994, when Republicans netted two House seats in special elections, has one party picked up more than a single seat in non-general election races. Democrats haven’t done so in the past 30 years.

In 1994, when Republican Reps. Ron Lewis (Ky.) and Frank Lucas (Okla.) won Democratic-held seats, GOPers rightly predicted that their victories presaged a torrent of unrest with President Bill Clinton and the Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. Republicans currently control all three levers of the federal government.

The Matsui memo also specifically addresses the situation in Texas, where a Republican redrawing of the state’s Congressional lines in 2003 has already claimed three Democratic incumbents with another five facing serious re-election challenges in November.

“[House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay [Texas] overreached in his re-redistricting power grab,” wrote Matsui. “There is significant resentment over DeLay’s bullying tactics.”

DeLay was the prime mover behind the opening up of the Lone Star State’s Congressional lines following the 2002 election.

After three special sessions, the Republican controlled legislature passed a new, more GOP-friendly map, which was signed by Gov. Rick Perry (R).

The new map quickly led to the retirement of Rep. Jim Turner (D) as well as the party switch of Rep. Ralph Hall (R).

In the Texas primary on March 9, Rep. Chris Bell (D) lost by 35 points in the new 9th district, which contained only 50 percent of the territory from his old 25th district.

Democratic Reps. Martin Frost and Charlie Stenholm have been paired with Republican incumbents in districts whose demographics favor the GOP.

Reps. Max Sandlin, Nick Lampson and Chet Edwards all face difficult re-election bids in seats that have added substantial new territory.

In spite of the inherent difficulty of the path that lies before Democrats, Matsui concludes the memo on an optimistic note.

“We have laid the groundwork for victory and we will be successful in our Campaign for a New Majority,” he writes.