Democrats Vow Offensive on Blue State Republicans

Posted March 18, 2005 at 6:17pm

Some liberals want Democrats to take a page from the Republican handbook, circa 1994, to win back control of Congress.

But Republicans say the advice comes too late.

Ruy Teixeira and John Judis, authors of the 2002 book “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” which forecasts a Democratic resurgence, are among those who have begun arguing that Democrats need to focus on Republican Senators and Congressmen serving in Democratic-leaning states or districts to take back Congress.

“The Democrats’ best chance of winning back the House (as well as the Senate) is to do what the Reagan Republicans did: oust or convert like-minded members of the opposite party,” they wrote in the January issue of The American Prospect. “The Republicans won the southern seats that were held by conservative Democrats; similarly, the Democrats need to take over the seats outside the Deep South that are now held by moderate Republicans.”

In an interview, Teixeira, who also is a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said the need for applying this recipe to next year’s midterm elections is clear.

“There has been a regional realignment,” he said. “Democrats need to pick off everyone they can in the North. You have to squeeze every seat that you can. The Republicans have internalized that strategy and have shown no mercy.”

Spokesmen for the Democratic campaign committees said that advice is self evident.

“We are targeting red Senators in blue states,” said Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “That’s happening; I’m glad to see they agree with what we’re doing.”

Though it’s early in the cycle, the DSCC is already hammering Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) in frequent news releases, and committee leaders have aggressively sought the Democratic candidates they believe have the best chance of winning.

Much to the chagrin of more liberal politicians interested in Senate bids, the DSCC has been trying to clear the field for Rep. James Langevin in Rhode Island and state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania, both of whom oppose abortion rights.

Teixeira said that is not necessarily a bad thing since the ultimate goal is picking up seats.

“If it is a state where some of the swing voters are going to be sensitive to that issue … you got to find somebody who will take advantage of the vulnerabilities of the incumbent and bring back the swing voters,” he said, speaking about Rhode Island, where Chafee supports abortion rights. “Swing voters might be attracted to someone who has a different stance on abortion than the incumbent.”

But while the Democrats appear to have recruited candidates who will give Santorum and Chafee tough challenges, they have had far less success in Maine, where moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) is up for a third term.

Jim Duffy, a Democratic consultant with Strother Duffy Strother in Washington, D.C., said his party would do well to heed the authors’ advice.

“If you look at the havoc that reapportionment has wreaked for the Democratic Party, look at how Republican-led redistricting in the South has helped them, why wouldn’t you try to do the same thing?” he asked. “It makes sense.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began implementing that strategy in the previous cycle when it tried to paint moderate Northeast Republicans as cookie cutters of the conservative right and as rubber stamps for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). But in the end it really was only successful in the cases of Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and in the seat being vacated by Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.).

Shays ultimately won re-election but had the contest of his career. And Democrat Brian Higgins won the Empire State’s heavily Democratic 27th district.

Duffy says Democrats shouldn’t just target Republicans in liberal states and districts but should also devote fewer resources to districts where their prospects aren’t so good.

“I’d stop wasting money trying to beat Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.)” and the like, he said. “Look at blue state Republicans who haven’t had a tough race and put some pressure on them.

“They need to think outside the box. Just because on paper it says it’s a Democratic district … at some point, if you keep shooting yourself in the foot, maybe you should move the gun away from your foot,” Duffy said.

There are plenty of freshman Congressmen in Pennsylvania and parts of the Midwest who could be excellent targets, he added.

“This is something that we have been doing all along,” said DCCC spokesman Sarah Feinberg. “I think you can just ask Chris Shays. That’s the thing that we’ve done all along, and we’re going to continue to do that this cycle.”

Shays is certain to be a major DCCC target again in 2006. But Feinberg said the committee is not content to target just “so-called” moderates.

“We’re also going to play in other districts that are more conservative where elected conservatives have become more radical and become completely out of touch with their districts,” she said.

For their part, Republicans say Democrats are late to the party.

Republican-controlled states moved to solidify gains made in the 1990s during redistricting that followed the 2000 Census and severely limited the playing field for Democrats.

“One of the dynamics of redistricting is there just aren’t that many competitive seats,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster and contributing writer for Roll Call. “At best there’s maybe 40 seats that could sort of bounce back and forth; there just aren’t the seats in play.”

Republicans also say that Democrats will have an even tougher time knocking off incumbents in Democratic-leaning states.

Senators such as Santorum, Chafee and Snowe “are in line with the states they represent,” said Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

“Democrats are so marginalized right now and are only appealing to the liberal left,” he said. “There aren’t enough liberal-left voters in those states.”

Winston said just targeting those Senators is not enough.

Republican Senators in blue states won their seats by building coalitions, Winston said.

“Democrats haven’t figured out how to build a majority coalition; President Clinton came the closest and even he didn’t win with 50 percent” of the vote, he said. “It’s interesting to do targeting but ultimately, do you know how to build a majority coalition?”

While some academics and strategists may advise against it, Democrats say that they will not just fight on their own terrain but that they will try to expand the playing field.

For instance, the DSCC has Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) in its cross hairs. Though the state overwhelmingly supported President Bush last year, it did elect a Democratic governor at the same time.

The NRSC’s Nick says “good luck.”

“Any attempts for Democrats to have a strategy to go into red states or states they didn’t do well in has already been abandoned,” he said, noting the party’s selection of failed presidential contender and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean as Democratic National Committee chairman.

“I’d say they moved in the opposite direction than to appeal to red state voters,” Nick said.