Worlds Apart: Democrats’ Electoral Targets Are Different for White House, Congressional Battles

Posted May 13, 2004 at 4:34pm

As Democrats fight to regain control of both the White House and Congress this November, their dual efforts won’t often overlap.

Few of this year’s marquee Senate and House races are taking place in so-called presidential battleground states this year.

In fact, the Congressional playing field lies largely in GOP territory, so Democrats don’t have the geographical advantage they enjoyed in 2000, when the party picked up seats in both houses despite their razor-thin White House loss.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that while some Democrats are concerned about the lack of overlap in battleground maps this cycle, the overall effect on the party’s prospects will be minimal.

“Are we concerned about it? Yes. Are we working on it? Yes,” Hoyer said.

While Democratic prospects of regaining control of the House still appear dim, the party faces better odds in the battle for the Senate, where they need a two-seat gain to get to a 51-seat majority — or just a one-seat pick-up if Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is elected president.

However, most of the hotly contested Senate races this cycle fall outside the 17 battleground states targeted by Democrats in the fight for the White House.

The Big 10

At this point, 10 Senate races are considered likely to determine control of the chamber in the 109th Congress. Only two of those states are expected to be vigorously contested on the presidential level: Florida and Pennsylvania.

While the open-seat race to succeed retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) is a pure tossup at this point, Democrats still face an uphill battle in defeating four-term Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), even after the incumbent barely escaped a bruising primary last month.

Still, the fact that Pennsylvania voted Democratic in the 2000 presidential contest is why Democrats argue that toppling Specter is a doable proposition.

“This is exactly the kind of race that Democrats picked up in 2000,” said Democratic pollster David Petts, who recently conducted polling in Pennsylvania.

In 2000, Democrats captured three GOP Senate seats in states that Al Gore won narrowly — Michigan, Minnesota and Washington. This cycle, Democrats are vowing to contest Louisiana and Colorado on the presidential level, even though President Bush won both states by healthy margins in 2000.

Each state is also home to an open-seat Senate contest. The Kerry campaign recently launched television ads in both states, a move that was not necessarily welcomed by the Democratic Senate candidates.

Among second-tier races this cycle, Democrats are targeting Sen. Kit Bond (R) in Missouri, another key presidential battleground. Bush carried the state 50 percent to 47 percent in 2000.

Republicans are targeting Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.), both of whom reside in states in play in the White House battle. Neither incumbent appears highly vulnerable at this point, however.

While the Pennsylvania race may have some similarities to Senate races in 2000, the history of the past two election cycles does not play to the party’s favor.

In 2000, Democrats picked up six Senate seats, five of which were in presidential battleground states. Three of those five states were carried by Gore, and one, Florida, was a virtual draw.

Florida was also the only open-seat pickup for the party. Incumbent Republicans were defeated in the rest: Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Washington. With the exception of Delaware, all of those states were hotly contested presidential battlegrounds where Bush and Gore’s advertising and organizing activities spilled over to downballot races.

At the same time, Democrats held all three of their open seats in New Jersey, New York and Nebraska, none of which was considered key to the White House contest.

Democrats’ Southern Discomfort

This cycle, Democrats are defending five open seats, all of them in Southern states Bush won four years ago.

Additionally, two of the three open Republican seats (Colorado, Illinois and Oklahoma) were Bush states in 2000. Democrats are slightly favored to pick up the seat of retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), and the races in the other two states are currently tossups.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse argues that in states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana and Oklahoma, the absence of a heavy presence by both parties will allow Democratic candidates more room to set their own agenda, one that is likely to differ from that of national Democrats and Kerry.

“We benefit from the fact that those are not likely to be battleground states,” Woodhouse said. “The fact that [Bush] is not going to be there that often, or campaign there that often, means that Republican Senate candidates won’t have him to drive out votes, build up excitement or raise money — because if he was doing those things that would be more difficult for us.”

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Dan Allen shrugged off the Democrats’ argument, asserting that in an election year, Republican voters will be motivated regardless of whether they reside in a battleground state.

“The president’s message is going to get out,” Allen said. “Their false belief that this is going to benefit them only shows how weak their argument is for taking back the Senate.”

By the Republican math, Democrats would have to win eight of the 10 races that are expected to decide the makeup of the Senate.

“They’re not going to be fighting in good terrain for them in nine out of 10 of them,” Allen said. “Bush on the top of the ticket is a huge multiplier for Republicans.”

Embracing Kerry

While Democratic candidates in the South have to walk a tightrope when it comes to the presidential race, Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.) is enthusiastic about campaigning with Kerry while working to defeat Specter in November. Gore carried Pennsylvania 51 percent to 46 percent in 2000.

Citing elevated turnout in a presidential year, Hoeffel said one of the factors in his decision to run was the presence of a White House contest in the state.

“I think that all that activity will be a big help to me and I hope that what I will be able to generate at the Senate level will be a help to John Kerry,” Hoeffel said. “I certainly will be campaigning with him very enthusiastically.”

In 2002, Republicans won three Democratic Senate seats and picked up two overall — all but one of them in states that Bush won. The exception was Minnesota, where Sen. Paul Wellstone’s (D) death in a plane crash two weeks before the election upended the race.

Last cycle the president campaigned heavily on behalf of Congressional candidates across the country. But this year, Democrats argue that they will benefit from having Bush tied to campaigning in battlegrounds.

Democrats question whether Bush will be able to generate coattails in nonbattleground states. Also, they wonder what it might mean for Democratic candidates if Bush carries some states by smaller winning margins than in 2000.

Bush won North Carolina with 56 percent of the vote four years ago. But current polling in the state, where his positions on free trade are not popular, indicates that Bush’s support has dipped. Strategists suggest that could ultimately help Senate candidate Erskine Bowles (D).

“What if he gets 52 percent? Wins, but barely,” one Democratic insider hypothesized. “Does that enable somebody like Erskine Bowles, or Tony Knowles in Alaska or [Rep. Brad Carson] in Oklahoma to be able to eke out a victory?”

Allen countered that it’s unlikely that Kerry will have any noticeable coattails in those states, or that other organizations dedicated to electing Kerry are going to help Democratic Senate or House candidates.

“The DSCC is going to be put in the position where they’re going to have to help coordinate a ground game,” Allen said. “If you look at these states that we’re running in, Republican parties in these states have been able to put a good ground game in place over the past six to 10 years.”

Some Democratic Senate candidates seem content to go it alone. In his see-saw battle with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D) has been quick to distance himself from Kerry, and his first TV ad, which he began airing last week, stresses his independence from party leaders.

What Might Have Been

But at the same time, the presidential battleground gives Congressional Democrats a bitter glimpse of opportunities missed.

In Ohio, Democrats point to evidence that Sen. George Voinovich (R), facing his first re-election this November, appears vulnerable in a state that will play a major role in the presidential contest.

A new Democratic poll showed the first-term Senator under the critical 50 percent mark. But the absence of a well-funded, well-known Democratic challenger puts Voinovich on fairly solid re-election ground.

On the House side, the playing field is more scattered, and only a paltry number of races are considered to be competitive at this point.

Large states contested on the presidential level feature little to any House race activity in 2004, thanks to last cycle’s redistricting efforts that sought to shore up districts and protect incumbents. Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa are almost completely devoid of competitive House races.

Pennsylvania and Washington are two of the exceptions, where open seats give Democrats some hope for pickup opportunities.

Much of the House activity this cycle has been centered on Texas, where a GOP-led redistricting effort has endangered five Democratic incumbents.

Nine of the 10 Members on Roll Call’s list of vulnerable incumbents represent districts Bush won in 2000. The lone exception is Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.), the most vulnerable incumbent outside of Texas this year.

While Gore carried Burns’ district easily in 2000, Georgia voted by a wide margin for Bush, and it is not one of the 17 battleground states this year.

While each chamber has party committees devoted to election activities, the Democratic National Committee is largely viewed as a presidential committee.

Hoyer said that both he and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) have spoken with DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe about increasing coordination between the party committees. But still, he conceded the ultimate goal of the DNC will be to elect Kerry, not get out the vote in states like Utah, where Rep. Jim Matheson (D) is a perennial target for Republicans.

“Getting out a whole lot of votes in Utah is probably not very productive for Kerry,” he said.