Trash Talk Precedes Elections

Posted October 27, 2004 at 6:36pm

With five days to go before Election Day and control of the House considered a non-topic in the national political discourse, the Republican and Democratic campaign chiefs are waging vastly different public strategies in the expectations game.

Painting the rosiest scenario possible, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) this week went so far as to suggest that his party could retake the House by defeating as many as 14 GOP incumbents — a prediction viewed as highly optimistic at best, even by Members in his own party.

Meanwhile, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) has sought to downplay any talk that his party might pick up seats in Tuesday’s elections, remaining steadfast in his assertion that he is focused solely on returning his 228-seat majority to the House.

“My goal is to bring back the 228,” Reynolds said, speaking by telephone from his campaign headquarters in western New York on Wednesday. “I’ve got some tough races and I’ve got some great opportunities. We’ll count them up at the end.”

A day earlier, Matsui predicted that Democrats could win the majority by beating more than half of the 20 GOP incumbents the DCCC is targeting.

“We feel very comfortable that we can perhaps win 12, 13 maybe even up to 14 of those, if in fact we have the breeze behind us and obviously if the turnout is what we hope it to be,” Matsui said. “We can pick up anywhere [from] 18 [to] 19 seats currently held by Republicans. And if we can hold our incumbent losses down to one, two or three, we’ll take the House back.”

Reynolds chalked up Matsui’s optimism to a last-ditch fundraising effort, before taking a jab at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who many observers believe has overhyped suggestions that Democrats could take back the House this cycle.

“They certainly are trying to appease their troops and troll for money in these late hours of a campaign,” Reynolds said. “And have chosen to put their credibility on the line.”

He later added: “I feel bad that Nancy Pelosi’s press shop has continually sent out a nice man in Bob Matsui to have to try and sell this stuff. It couldn’t be sold if it was near truth, and it’s certainly tough to sell when there’s no truth.”

But DCCC spokesman Greg Speed retorted that Democrats will have the last laugh.

“We’ll see how nice he thinks Congressman Matsui is when we’re picking up Republican districts all over the country next Tuesday,” Speed said.

Democrats contend that the field of competitive seats in play is five seats larger than the 38 seats Republicans have laid out.

In a conference call with reporters, Matsui predicted that his party could net a gain of 15 to 18 seats by holding all of the nine seats they are defending in competitive incumbent and open-seat races and picking up a majority of the 29 GOP-held seats they say are in play. Democrats currently control 206 seats in the chamber and must net at minimum 12 seats to give them a slim majority in the 109th Congress.

While Democratic Members, outside of Texas where five incumbents have been made vulnerable by last year’s re-redistricting, largely appear to be on stable ground heading in to the final stretch, several GOP incumbents remain on the ropes. The most vulnerable are Reps. Phil Crane (Ill.), Christopher Shays (Conn.), Rob Simmons (Conn.), Max Burns (Ga.) and Heather Wilson (N.M.).

Among Democratic incumbents, Rep. Baron Hill (Ind.) and Texas Reps. Max Sandlin, Nick Lampson, Charlie Stenholm and Martin Frost look to be most endangered.

“We’re obviously concerned about the Texas Members,” Matsui said.

Democrats’ best prospects for picking up GOP-held open seats are in Colorado’s 3rd district, New York’s 27th district, Washington’s 8th district and Louisiana’s 3rd district, a race that is expected to be decided by a December runoff.

Outside of those four races, the party’s prospects for picking up several additional seats look bleak. Democrats would need to win a majority of the contests in Washington’s 5th district, Pennsylvania’s 8th and 15th districts, Virginia’s 2nd district and Nebraska’s 1st district, all races where Republicans currently have the upper hand.

Even if Democrats did win races that currently look like unlikely pickups the majority would still elude them, Republicans say.

“If the Democrats won every lean Democratic seat, then proceed to win all 15 Republican and tossup seats, they’d still be five seats short of a majority,” Reynolds said. “They just can’t do it.”

Reynolds boasted that Democrats are being forced to spend their limited resources on seats that had once been considered almost sure bets for the party like California’s 20th district, New York’s 27th district and Missouri’s 5th district.

Democrats are equally boastful in their contention that they have successfully expanded the playing field to include seats once considered GOP locks such as Pennsylvania’s 8th district, Virginia’s 2nd district and Nebraska’s 1st district. Speed also pointed to incumbents like Crane, Shays and Reps. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) and Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.) as examples of seats “that the NRCC never dreamed they’d have to defend in this election.”

“We’ve done what we said we were going to do by expanding the playing field and putting additional Republican seats in play,” he said.

Reynolds will campaign in South Dakota today for state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R) before returning to his Buffalo-area district for the weekend. He will return to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday night to monitor the Election Day returns.

Matsui will also be in the nation’s capital on Election Night.