When Committees Collide

They Sometimes Find Themselves Recruiting the Same Candidate

Posted September 19, 2007 at 6:32pm

Besides supporters of former Virginia governor — and likely Senate candidate — Jim Gilmore (R), there’s one other group of Republicans who will be less than thrilled if (or, more likely, when) Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) announces that he too will join the race to replace retiring Sen. John Warner (R-Va.).

That’s the folks who are interested in keeping Davis’ suburban-Washington district securely in the Republican column.

Even though his Fairfax County-based district has trended more and more Democratic in recent cycles, Davis has shown that he can win handily. But as the former chairman of the National

Republican Congressional Committee surely knows, the 11th district would instantly become a battleground in the 2008 election cycle if Davis decides to leave the House.

Such is the good news/bad news of proven winners in tough districts seeking other offices. For those whose job it is to hold or increase a party’s representation in either chamber, a “win” in finding a candidate for a Senate committee may not translate into a win for the party’s sister House committee.

Or as one national pollster put it, “at the end of the day, each of these committees has to look at their own interests. As committed as folks are as partisans, I think their first priority is to the matter under which they work.”

The issue of party committees competing over recruitment could be likened to that of fundraising. In essence, there’s only so much wealth to go around and sometimes there’s a race to be the first to come asking.

But Democratic and Republican officials at the House and Senate campaign committees are quick to downplay any idea that they fight for candidates, instead noting “shared goals” of increasing party representation and arguing that any rivalry would be a “friendly competition” where the interests of the particular candidate play the most important role.

“While we haven’t run into too many instances where our committees have been competing for candidates at this point, the good-natured competitive spirit is alive and well in the race for the best candidate,” said Rebecca Fisher, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Luckily for Republicans we have a wealth of strong candidates to compete over.”

“Fielding successful candidates and running strong campaigns benefits Democrats in both houses,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Miller said. The DSCC and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee “have a track record of working well together that dates back to last cycle and has continued this cycle.”

But one former DCCC staffer said on Wednesday that no matter what committee you work for, “the first job in building your math is holding retirements to an absolute bare minimum, so that creates a natural pressure between the House and Senate committees — and there aren’t any Senators leaving that chamber to run for the House. Holding down your retirements is central to building your math, so that’s obviously a built-in tension that exists every single cycle.”

The former DCCC staffer speculated that it’s highly unlikely anyone at the NRCC would celebrate an announcement of Davis’ Senate candidacy.

“Party loyalty only extends so far,” the staffer said. “Loyalty to your colleagues in your chamber is what you’re hired to do.”

Asked about the Davis race, NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said, “‘We think Tom Davis is an excellent Congressman. We certainly hope that he remains in the House, but we obviously respect his wishes in whatever he decides to do. … At the end of the day it is incumbent upon this committee to work for the House but also to respect the wishes of individual members.”

The NRSC is not explicitly recruiting Davis, and he has long expressed an interest in a Senate seat.

Earlier this year, Democrats avoided a situation akin to the one surrounding Davis in Virginia when Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) decided in April against challenging Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) for his seat in 2008. DeFazio continues to easily win re-election in his 4th district, which splits its presidential vote.

To a lesser extent, they faced the same dilemma when Reps. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) and Nick Lampson (D-Texas) contemplated — but ultimately decided against — running for Senate in 2008.

Another place where both Democratic committees could, in the future, find themselves in competition with each other is in South Dakota, where Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D) has shown she can handily win her at-large seat in a state that gave President Bush 60 percent of the vote in the past two presidential elections.

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) has stated his intention to run again, though some political observers speculate whether any additional health problems could change his decision. If Johnson decides to retire, Republicans would be expected to put up a much stronger candidate than they would if Johnson ran again, and Herseth Sandlin will be under enormous pressure to run for Senate.

Meanwhile in just three short years, the term of South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds (R) will be up, which might throw a third Democratic campaign committee into the mix.

Herseth Sandlin is the granddaughter of a South Dakota governor, and her father, a long-time state legislator, ran unsuccessfully for the job in 1986. There is some speculation that she’d run for governor in 2010.

Noting that it’s very early to be talking about recruiting, Brian Namey, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, conceded, “We’re encouraging [Herseth Sandlin] to take a look at the race.”

Rep. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.) could also be wooed from three directions. He’s already run for governor and could try again in 2011 if a Democrat does not win that post in November. Senate Democrats also would love for him to challenge Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2008, though it seems unlikely that he will. Should Chandler run for Senate, however, his Lexington-based House district would be prime pickup territory for the GOP.

Similarly, Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) is seen as a likely candidate for Senate if Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) retires, putting her Albuquerque-based House seat in jeopardy of a Democratic takeover.

The national pollster said that’s part of the ebb and flow of national politics.

“The Republicans know full well that if Davis runs for Senate that seat is going to flip and there’s a very high likelihood that if Herseth were to run for Senate it would be difficult for Democrats to retain her seat,” the pollster said. “In the case of Senate and House recruiting there’s a bottom line there as well for staff and for people’s futures and résumé burnishing so there’s a lot at stake. … Both committees will say or do literally anything to persuade a candidate into a race.”

Even if that comes at the detriment to their sister committee?

“If it comes to that. Let’s face it, jobs are on the line.”