The Ones Who Always Get Away

Handful of GOP Moderates Prove Elusive Targets

Posted March 30, 2009 at 6:29pm

For Democrats, there are five elusive House Republicans who represent districts that 2004 presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) carried and President Barack Obama won by even larger margins last year.

Although the party has knocked off more than two dozen Republicans in Democratic-leaning districts over the past two election cycles, GOP Reps. Mike Castle (Del.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Jim Gerlach (Pa.), Charlie Dent (Pa.) and Dave Reichert (Wash.) have survived — in some cases because the national party failed to find a promising candidate to run against them.

And with candidate recruitment season in full swing, some wonder whether the party’s opportunity has passed to pick up these Democratic districts, with the political environment presumably poised to swing back toward the GOP next year.

“In each of the districts … there are strong Democrats who could present a formidable challenge to the Republican incumbent,— said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Crider pointed to former Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who won by minuscule margins in 2004 and 2006, and eventually lost to now-Rep. Jim Himes (D) last cycle. She said people thought Shays was an invincible Republican.

“We don’t buy into the notion that there are unbeatable’ Republicans,— Crider said.

But House Democrats are already searching to find the best candidates in these Democratic districts — so far with mixed success.

In Dent’s 15th district, Democrats have attempted to recruit Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan several times to run but with no success. Callahan reportedly turned down another request by Democrats to run in March, citing personal concerns.

Dent defeated Allentown Democratic Party Chairwoman Sam Bennett last cycle with 59 percent of the vote in a district that Obama won with 56 percent of the vote.

This week, transportation consultant Scott Spencer (D) announced his intention to challenge Castle in 2010 and said he would soon campaign around the state by train. But national Democrats would probably rather see former Lt. Gov. John Carney (D), who is contemplating the race, make a bid.

Democrats will likely look to state Sen. Andy Dinniman to run against Gerlach, who won re-election with 52 percent of the vote in 2008 against a little-known businessman. Dinniman, who is not term-limited in the state Senate, might be more inclined to run if Gerlach runs for governor. Local Democrats also talk about attorney Dan Wofford, who lost to Gerlach in a 2002 open-seat race, as a potential candidate.

Marketing consultant Dan Seals, the 2006 and 2008 Democratic nominee against Kirk in Illinois’ 10th district, has said he would be interested in running again if the seat becomes open. Kirk is contemplating a run for Senate. But even if Seals does not run in 2008, Illinois Democrats say there is no shortage of candidates in the northern Chicagoland district.

Democrats’ nominee against Reichert in 2006 and 2008, former Microsoft Executive Darcy Burner, has said she will not run again for the seat and has taken a job in Washington, D.C. Another former Microsoft executive, Suzan DelBene, has announced she will run for the seat, but other local Democrats are expected to run as well.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay said the group is confident that its party’s Members would win re-election again, no matter who Democrats recruit to run against them.

“A lot has changed in these districts since 2004, but these Members have become as skilled at facing tough campaigns as they have at being effective advocates for their constituents,— Lindsay said. “That’s why they will continue to survive despite challenging political environments.—

The DCCC’s former political director from the 2008 cycle, Brian Smoot, chalked up the Gerlach and Dent victories in part to the party not finding the right candidate to run.

“I would say that in Gerlach and Dent’s districts, there hasn’t been a tier-one candidate to run, especially in the Pennsylvania 6th district,— said Smoot, who later added that Lois Murphy, the Democratic nominee against Gerlach in 2004 and 2006, was a top recruit and heavily backed by the DCCC.

Gerlach’s seat is especially promising for Democrats, given that the party continues to make gains in southeastern Pennsylvania. However, the key for Democrats will be finding someone who can afford to run in the Philadelphia media market — either a self-funding candidate or a Democrat with the ability to raise a great deal of money.

But in the cases of Castle, Gerlach and Kirk, Democrats’ best shots at the seats could be the 2010 cycle. Gerlach has opened an exploratory committee to run for governor, while Kirk and Castle are contemplating running for Senate.

“Potential candidates could make their decisions depending on what those candidates do,— Smoot said.

But in the past, potential candidates have not stepped up to the plate to run in those seats, despite the plethora of Democrats in local offices in Delaware, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Washington.

“You could blame the DCCC for not recruiting in these districts, but you could also probably fault the so-called bench candidates in these districts for not stepping up to the plate,— said Mark Nevins, a Democratic consultant based in Pennsylvania.

Nevins said the 2010 cycle will not necessarily be Democrats’ last chance to take these seats. At least in the case of Kirk and Gerlach, Democrats’ chances might only get better after redistricting occurs before the 2012 cycle.

“It is the last time you can run in these districts before redistricting, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the last chance,’ per say,— Nevins said. “Some of these districts might get better after redistricting.—