Parties Look to Expand Playing Field With Recruiting

Posted April 27, 2009 at 6:31pm

Seeking to rebound from back-to-back drubbings at the polls, House Republican campaign officials say they want to look beyond the usual suspects and typical districts to recruit candidates to run in 2010.

With a hefty 40-seat deficit standing between House Republicans and a return to the majority, the GOP is being forced to look to unlikely districts and for unique candidates. Party leaders say they are especially interested in community leaders — in other words candidates that have not traditionally run for political office in the past.

National Republican Congressional Committee Executive Director Guy Harrison said House Republicans will be more inclined to look for community-leader types instead of more traditional politicians to run.

“It’s not just state legislators, it’s not just who was supposed to be the next person on the peg,— Harrison said. “It’s usually, what we’re looking for, is people who have already created something in the community and are using that resource to make change in Washington.—

That strategy seems especially practical given the party just lost the special election in New York’s 20th district by a very slim margin after their nominee, former state Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco, was boxed by the “career politician— label.

NRCC Recruitment Chairman Kevin McCarthy spent his weekend in Oregon talking to two potential candidates in traditionally Democratic districts. The California Republican spent a day with Springfield Mayor Sid Leiken (R), who will likely challenge 12-term Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.).

Given that DeFazio won re-election with 83 percent in November, he would appear to be an unconventional target for Republicans. In fact, DeFazio has not earned less than 64 percent of the vote since his first election. But in a district that only voted for President Barack Obama with 54 percent last year, Republicans are looking at DeFazio’s southwestern Oregon seat as an opportunity.

“It’s not always freshmen that you beat,— McCarthy said. “People that have a longer record, who have been in Washington, D.C., for a long time … maybe they haven’t had candidates challenge them before.—

If Republicans hope to expand the playing field, they will have to go long: There are only eight freshman and 16 second-term Democrats who represent districts that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won with at least 51 percent of the vote in 2008.

McCarthy pointed to other potential recruits in traditionally Democratic-leaning swing districts, such as that of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), where the party is putting the full-court press on Assemblyman Van Tran (R) to enter the race. Like DeFazio, Sanchez has won by overwhelming margins except for her first election, but a growing Vietnamese population in the district makes it a tempting target for Republicans.

Meanwhile in New Hampshire, Republicans are courting Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta (R) to run against Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) in 2010. Guinta is strongly considering a bid in the district that has traditionally voted Republican but has trended more toward Democrats recently.

“Everyone knows where the Republican seats are, and we’ll get top candidates there,— McCarthy said. “When you go to the next level, it’s even harder. … If we were able to get those three to run, at those tier candidates, that would be a great achievement.—

But in seats where Republicans say they see an opportunity, Democrats argue they see a party struggling to find candidates. DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) welcomed the NRCC to put effort into traditionally Democratic districts like that of Sanchez and DeFazio, therefore steering away precious resources from more traditionally competitive districts.

It’s “some indication that they’re having a more difficult time than anticipated finding challengers for our new Members, who have put themselves in a strong position right from the start,— Van Hollen said in an interview.

With Democrats now in control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the DCCC is off to a running start this cycle with five announced candidates so far in what they consider to be competitive districts. Several of these recruits are in districts where GOP incumbents are considering retirement or running for higher office.

Florida state Sen. Charlie Justice (D) announced he will challenge longtime Rep. Bill Young (R), who makes the retirement watch list every Congress. Meanwhile, Delaware Lt. Gov. John Carney (D) has announced he is running for the seat held by Rep. Mike Castle (R), who is leaning toward running for Senate or retiring next year.

Democrats failed to nab a top-tier recruit to challenge Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) in 2008, but wealthy former editorial writer Doug Pike (D) has announced his candidacy, and they seem content to line up behind him. Finally, Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet (D) has announced he will challenge Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.).

Obama carried the districts of Bono Mack, Young, Castle and Carney by overwhelming margins, but Democrats also have recruited a top-flight candidate in at least one traditionally Republican district. Rep. Adam Putnam’s (R-Fla.) departure to run for statewide office has left his GOP-leaning seat open in 2010. Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards (D) has already announced her candidacy.

When it comes to this cycle’s recruitment, Van Hollen said his party is looking at the six GOP Members in districts that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won in 2004, the 29 GOP Members in districts that Obama won last November, Republican incumbents who underperformed last year and districts where GOP retirements are possible

“I don’t think there’s any single profile that you can uniformly say will lead to success,— Van Hollen said. “You’ve got to look at the specific situation in each CD and find the best match in terms of candidates.—