Some House Recruits Have Yet to Measure Up to Hype

Posted October 28, 2009 at 6:13pm

During the election off-year, the House campaign committees spend much of their time recruiting and then promoting their top candidates — like college football teams touting their class of high school prospects before they hit the field. But a year out from Election Day, Democrats and Republicans have highly touted recruits who have either flamed out or are far from living up to the early hype.

Simply put, both parties have candidates looking to get back on track.

This spring, Springfield, Ore., Mayor Sid Leiken was touted as one of a handful of top recruits by the National Republican Congressional Committee. By challenging Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) in the 4th district, Leiken was supposed to be an example of the GOP’s effort to recruit top-notch challengers in districts that haven’t been competitive in recent cycles.

Leiken filed on May 13, but his campaign derailed less than a month later after it came to light that he paid his mother $2,000 for campaign polling to a company that wasn’t registered with the state. Over a number of days the story grew bigger as facts trickled out.

“It’s the difference between an article and a story,— according to a House GOP strategist.

Leiken choked back tears as he admitted to failing to properly document the transaction, and the secretary of state is looking into it. The matter was not insignificant, but it didn’t have to completely disrupt his campaign.

“You have to get good people around these candidates for them to succeed,— according to one GOP consultant who believes Leiken could have weathered the storm with better advice.

Instead of giving DeFazio a run for his money (the incumbent had $583,000 in the bank on Sept. 30), Leiken is facing fundraising troubles on top of everything else. The mayor raised just $52,000 through the end of the third quarter and had a paltry $21,000 in his campaign account at the end of September.

According to one GOP source, Leiken is making some changes in his campaign, but it may be too late to change the narrative of the race. For now, he may not even be Republicans’ hottest race in Oregon, with strategists becoming more excited about their prospects in the 5th and even 1st districts.

Across the country in Florida, a once-hot Democratic candidate is having trouble living up to early expectations as well.

For years, Democrats have believed that Rep. Bill Young (R) is close to retiring in Florida’s 10th district. Growing impatient because the former Appropriations chairman continues to seek re-election, this cycle Democrats recruited state Sen. Charlie Justice (D) into the race to see if they could smoke Young out. But Justice’s early fundraising has been mediocre, and Democrats are a long way from scaring Young into retirement.

Justice filed on April 24, raised $86,000 his first quarter of fundraising and $77,000 in his second. Those are less than spectacular numbers for a star recruit. He ended September with $101,000 in the bank, but Young had four times that amount.

“He needs to put in the work to build his operation and make sure he has the money to compete,— admitted one House Democratic strategist. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), who is the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s vice chairwoman for incumbent retention this cycle, has been assigned to Justice to help jump-start his campaign.

The jury is still out on several other notable early recruits.

Republicans believe Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta will mount a strong challenge against Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) in New Hampshire’s 1st district. Guinta got into the race early and drew fire from Democrats after being at a bar when a brawl broke out and failing to call the police.

Democrats believe the mayor’s candidacy was derailed by the incident and highlight the fact that he only raised $126,000 in the third quarter. But Republicans point out that Guinta’s total was only slightly behind Shea-Porter’s $141,000 raised for the quarter and that he ended September only about $100,000 behind the incumbent in cash on hand.

Along with Leiken, California Assemblyman Van Tran (R) was part of a recruiting class built to expand the GOP playing field by challenging Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.).

And like Guinta, Democrats believe Tran’s candidacy has stalled after he raised $92,000 in the third quarter. But after raising a whopping $254,000 from mid-May to June, Tran was going to have difficulty keeping up. After tapping friends and family for contributions, a candidate’s second quarter of fundraising is thought to be considerably more difficult.

Tran had $283,000 in the bank on Sept. 30 compared with $769,000 for Sanchez.

When trouble begins to surface for candidates, early detection is critical.

“Now it’s an identified problem, and we can sit down and try and solve it,— according to one GOP strategist, who would rather advise a candidate after a poor fundraising quarter in the off-year than later next year after resources are invested. “We’re not trying to be ‘survival of the fittest.’ We’re trying to build something.—

Republicans joke that at least their alleged flameouts are raising more money than the Democrats.

Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards was supposed to give Democrats a chance at competing for the 12th district seat that Rep. Adam Putnam (R) is vacating in Florida.

She filed on March 2, put together $101,000 through June but raised just $39,000 from July through September and had only $77,000 on hand on Sept. 30. Her likely GOP opponent, former state Rep. Dennis Ross (R), was sitting on $255,000 at the same point.

Similarly, Democrats believe state Rep. Todd Book (D) is their best possible challenger to Rep. Jean Schmidt (R) in Ohio’s 2nd district. But he comes from the least populated portion of the district and raised $64,000 in his first two months in the race, ending September with less than $45,000 in the bank. His opponent in the Democratic primary, David Krikorian, had a head start and showed $115,000 in cash on hand, while Schmidt had $235,000 in the bank.

Schmidt will never be completely safe and Book has time to get on track, but he’s not off to a roaring start. When candidates come up short in fundraising, it’s distressing because that’s all they should be doing at this point, according to one Democratic strategist.

But in the end, even an imperfect challenger could get significant support from their party’s national campaign committee if the race is ultimately deemed as a winnable opportunity.