Gunning for the ‘Old Bulls’

GOP Targets Committee Veterans

Posted September 16, 2009 at 6:45pm

Under most circumstances, House Republicans would be inclined to target any Democrat representing a district that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won last November with 62 percent of the vote.

But Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) has not faced a serious Republican challenger for more than a decade, and most Democrats would consider the Science and Technology chairman a safe bet for re-election in 2010.

So why are House Republicans recruiting candidates to run against Gordon and some of the most powerful Democratic chairmen in Congress? According to several strategists, the National Republican Congressional Committee is either banking on strategy or luck to take out some of the House’s most senior Democrats.

If Democrats incur a backlash from voters in 2010, former NRCC Chairman Tom Davis (Va.) said chairmen could face an “added burden— because their party controls both Congress and the White House.

“If you’re talking about Members from marginally Democratic seats, they become prime targets because they become associated with the status quo,— Davis said.

While it’s unusual for committee chairmen to lose their seats, it is not unprecedented.

As recently as 2006, House Natural Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) lost re-election in an upset. Perhaps more famously, Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) lost re-election in 1994 after he was indicted on corruption charges related to the Congressional Post Office scandal.

Rostenkowski was not the only chairman to lose re-election in the 1994 GOP wave that swept out 34 Democratic incumbents. Intelligence Chairman Dan Glickman (Kan.) and Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks (Texas) also lost in 1994, as did Speaker Tom Foley (Wash.).

Davis said Glickman lost because, unlike in previous terms, Democrats controlled Congress and the White House — and the GOP could point blame at the 18-term Congressman for what was happening in Washington.

“What Glickman had this time that he did not have in previous terms is that his party controlled everything,— Davis said. “When that happens, your wind becomes a gale force.—

Although targeting veteran Democrats such as Gordon, Appropriations Chairman David Obey (Wis.) or Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (Mo.) could be a long shot right now, recruiting candidates in those races sets Republicans up for a possible upset if a wave comes along, longtime Democratic pollster Alan Secrest said.

“I think, strategically, their goal is to drape the less popular aspect of the president’s agenda around these chairmen’s necks and force chairs to spend time defending either their own prerogatives or the president’s or both if they’re both unpopular,— Secrest said. “And it becomes a fairly effective harassment tool in the hands of the minority.—

If a wave comes along in Missouri’s 4th district, Republicans have at least two candidates willing to ride it out against Skelton. Former state Rep. Vicki Hartzler announced her candidacy Wednesday, and state Sen. Bill Stouffer is likely to get into the race in the next few weeks.

An unlikely target in past election cycles, Skelton has not won with less than 55 percent of the vote in his entire Congressional career. His district, however, votes for Republican candidates on the national level and chose McCain by more than 20 points last year.

Ashland County District Attorney Sean Duffy (R) is challenging Obey, who has not received less than 60 percent of the vote since his first race in 1969. But the district has become marginally competitive in recent years for other candidates, and Obama won with 56 percent of the vote in 2008.

“With the kind of attention that Obey has given to this district in the last couple of decades, I think he is vulnerable,— Duffy said. “We haven’t have a challenger to go up against Obey who has held elected office in recent memory.—

Republicans have also fielded candidates against several other Members on the powerful Appropriations Committee. House Republicans have touted their candidate running against Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who has not won with less than 64 percent of the vote since 1984.

Republicans have targeted another Appropriations member, Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), almost every cycle because he represents a Republican stronghold. But they have yet to find a candidate for 2010. Edwards won re-election with 53 percent of the vote in 2008.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee officials said they welcome House Republicans’ attempt to play in districts that their longest-serving Members have easily held onto for decades.

“These highly effective committee chairs have long-standing relationships with the families of their districts that go back years, which is why they are re-elected handily every time,— DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer said. “Republicans are clearly grasping at straws targeting these Members, but we wouldn’t stop them if they’d like to throw away their money.—

GOP campaign operatives said they are in talks with potential candidates against Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the longest-serving House Member, Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), and Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.). While Dingell represents a traditionally Democratic district, voters picked McCain in both Spratt’s and Peterson’s districts.

“Running against an entrenched incumbent is always an uphill battle, but being entrenched in a reckless and unpopular Democrat-controlled Congress is providing more disadvantages than it used to,— NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay said. “Whether they like it or not, these chairmen are taking ownership of the flawed policies that may be in line with the radical views of Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.] but are not welcome among their constituents.—

Jason Roe, a GOP campaign consultant, acknowledged that targeting committee chairmen might be a long shot but said it will also make Democrats “spread the defense— and put resources where they might not otherwise.

“If we’re forcing every Democratic Member to fight for their own seats, we’re tying up more resources,— Roe said. “You also tie those Members’ money down.—

Because committee chairmen are in a powerful position to raise money, they often spread the wealth to other Democrats or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Gordon, for example, transferred $276,500 from his campaign to other Democratic candidates last cycle — almost one-quarter of all of the money he spent on his re-election in 2008. And Gordon still had funds to spare with $1.2 million in the bank at the end of June.

Obey and Skelton were even more generous, giving $379,700 and $413,000 to their fellow Democrats last cycle, respectively.

But when longtime Democrats have to worry about their own re-election campaigns, their money will be diverted back to their own districts.