NRCC Poised to Expand 2006 Field

Posted April 6, 2005 at 6:48pm

Despite Democratic efforts over the past several election cycles to expand the House playing field, the results of the 2004 presidential election suggest that Republicans actually have more fertile ground for gains between now and the next round of redistricting.

President Bush carried 24 districts currently held by Democratic Members with 55 percent of the vote or more, according to Roll Call calculations. By contrast, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) won just one Republican-held district by 55 percent or more — Iowa’s 2nd.

While other factors will also play into the two parties’ targeting decisions, these figures do offer a starting point for each party’s opportunities prior to the nationwide redistricting that will take effect in 2012.

Democratic House leaders aren’t conceding defeat yet, however. They paint a rosier picture than the 2004 map conveys, saying Bush’s popularity has dropped significantly and that Republicans in Congress continue to fiscally mismanage the government, to enact flawed policy and to engage in questionable ethical conduct.

“If my guys survived a presidential [election] with Bush on the ballot, without him they are going to be fine,” predicted Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.).

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) echoed that sentiment.

“It certainly doesn’t make it easier in the sense that people look at statistics and say, ‘Bush did pretty well,’” Hoyer acknowledged. “But since that time, Bush’s numbers have plummeted.”

Carl Forti, communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee, disagreed, arguing that Bush’s strong performance in Democratic-held seats “proves our point that we have tremendous offensive possibilities in some of these districts both now and in the immediate future.”

Republicans have a 29-seat House majority after picking up three seats in the 2004 election. Not since the 1994 tidal wave, in which Republicans picked up 52 House seats, have they carried as wide a margin.

And, given the small margin of the Bush-Kerry contest, the number of Democratic-held seats that Bush strongly carried is striking.

The 17th district of Rep. Chet Edwards — the only one of the five Texas Democrats targeted by a 2003 GOP-led re-redistricting plan to survive the 2004 election — gave Bush 69 percent, making it the 27th-best performing district in the country for the president.

Edwards defeated then-state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth (R) 51 percent to 47 percent in a seat that stretches from the Dallas suburbs south toward Waco and then west into Brazos County. (It’s also Bush’s home district, his ranch in Crawford is represented by Edwards.)

Edwards credited his win to his ability to define himself to voters before Wohlgemuth could. “My first two ads were that I was strong on national defense and fighting for fiscal responsibility,” Edwards said. “When she said I was a Ted Kennedy-John Kerry liberal, people didn’t believe it.”

Edwards also declared his support early and often for many of Bush’s policies, including the war on terror and the president’s initiatives on energy and education.

Given the 2004 results, several Republicans have shown interest in challenging Edwards in 2006, including retired Army Col. Dave McIntyre, who narrowly missed the GOP runoff in 2004, and state Sen. Steve Ogden.

Edwards expressed confidence in his re-election prospects regardless of the opponent.

“If they couldn’t beat me with $5 to $7 million dollars when Bush was on the ticket they are not going to beat me, period,” he said.

Edwards is not the only Democrat who will be targeted in 2006 in a district that went strongly for Bush in 2004.

Utah Rep. Jim Matheson (D) has held the 2nd district, which gave Bush 66 percent, since 2000. Rep. Earl Pomeroy’s (D) North Dakota at-large seat went 63 percent for Bush, while Pomeroy’s neighbor to the south, Rep. Stephanie Herseth (D-S.D.), represents an at-large district where Bush won 60 percent.

More problematic for House Democrats will be when the aforementioned Members decide to retire or run for higher office.

A case in point is 4th district Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.).

The seat, which encompasses much of central and western Missouri, has grown increasingly Republican since Skelton was elected to Congress in 1976.

In the 2004 presidential election, Bush took 64 percent of the vote there — a 6-point jump from his showing just four years before.

Skelton has not had a serious re-election race since 1982, when redistricting forced him into a Member-vs.-Member contest. Skelton won 55 percent to 45 percent.

But, Skelton will turn 75 at the end of 2005 and is often mentioned as a retirement possibility. Even the most loyal of Democrats acknowledge that when he decides to leave the chamber, they will almost certainly lose the seat.

Seeking to counter that eventual loss, Democrats are aiming to frontload their recruiting efforts for the 2006 cycle this year, in the hope of getting more candidates into targeted races earlier.

Hoyer has been one of the party’s lead recruiters for several cycles, and he already has traveled to four districts in New York and Connecticut to help the DCCC find candidates.

House Democrats acknowledge their overall recruiting strategy for 2006 isn’t much different from recent cycles, but leaders say they’re putting heavier emphasis on getting candidates to commit earlier in the cycle. They’re also focusing more heavily on recruiting beyond the 20 districts typically in play for a Democratic challenge.

“The notion that the DCCC is looking beyond those 20 to 25 districts is nothing new,” said one senior House Democratic aide. “What is different is that they are actually following up and doing it.”

The DCCC wants to recruit challengers in about 40 districts this cycle. Beyond the seats it has targeted in previous cycles, officials are paying more attention this cycle to districts with changing demographics, older GOP candidates and Republican incumbents who are poor fundraisers or lazy campaigners.

Given the current political dynamics, House leaders believe that some Republican incumbents are more vulnerable this cycle than in the past, including Reps. Nancy Johnson (Conn.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Bob Ney (Ohio), Sam Graves (Mo.) and even Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas).

As for their early recruitment successes, House Democrats have secured challengers in Florida and Connecticut: State Sen. Ron Klein is challenging Rep. Clay Shaw (R) in Florida’s 22nd district, and 2002 nominee Joe Courtney is running against Rep. Rob Simmons (R) in Connecticut’s 2nd district.

They also believe they are close to recruiting state Attorney General Patricia Madrid to run against Rep. Heather Wilson in New Mexico’s 1st district; state Rep. Ross Hunter against Washington Rep. David Reichert in the 8th district; and 2004 nominee Diane Farrell to challenge GOP Rep. Christopher Shays in Connecticut’s 4th district.

“You need to look beyond just presidential election statistics to see how other Democrats in those states perform,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the DCCC’s chief recruiter this cycle. “There is a whole mix of issues that come into play in Congressional elections that aren’t the same in a national presidential election.”