Anti-Washington Fervor Not Bad for All Democrats

Posted March 22, 2010 at 6:07pm

House Democrats are trying to minimize their expected losses this fall by targeting a handful of Republicans, banking on a belief that voters are more frustrated with politicians in both parties than they are with the Obama administration or the Democratic-run Congress.

“They’re just mad at Washington. They don’t really give a rip about party; they just want some help,” said Tom White (D), a state Senator who is challenging Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.).

White said the political environment in the Omaha-based 2nd district is “an interesting climate — I’ve never seen anything like it among voters here.”

Franklin County Commissioner Paula Brooks (D), who is taking on Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio), recalled hearing on her entry into the race, “You’re not an incumbent. This is going to be a tough year for nonincumbents.”

“Well, guess what — that is certainly somewhat turned on its head,” she said. “I have the advantage of being a nonincumbent in this district, and I think the wind is at my back this year.”

Other Democratic challengers interviewed — including Suzan DelBene, a former Microsoft executive who is taking on Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), and Tommy Sowers, an educator and military veteran who is a long shot against Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) ­— expressed similar sentiments.

Though small in number, serious Democratic challengers this cycle are an important part of their party’s effort to defend its majority. With the GOP winning back the House this fall not completely out of the question, any victories that Democrats can eke out over GOP incumbents — as well as in a few GOP-held open seats — would help take the sting out of larger losses that the party might sustain elsewhere.

“As we have made clear all cycle, the best defense is a strong offense, and our Democratic recruits have been winning over voters with their commitment to creating jobs and standing up for the middle class,” said Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

White, Brooks and DelBene were among just seven Democratic challengers included on the DCCC’s recently announced “Red to Blue” list of GOP-held districts that Democrats have identified as top targets. The others are Ami Bera, a doctor taking on Rep. Dan Lungren (Calif.); Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, who is challenging Rep. Charlie Dent (Pa.); Rob Miller, an Iraq War veteran waging a 2008 rematch against Rep. Joe Wilson (S.C.); and Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet, who is taking on Rep. Mary Bono Mack (Calif.).

But history points to limited success by Democratic challengers this year. In midterm election years, voter anger almost always is directed at the party controlling the White House. Seldom have there been midterm elections in which both the dominant party and the minority party bore the brunt of voter anger.

In 1994, when Republicans won control of Congress at the midpoint of President Bill Clinton’s first term, Republicans defeated 34 Democratic incumbents and didn’t lose any of their own seats. In 1982, when Democrats made big gains two years after a sweeping victory by Ronald Reagan and his Republican Party, 26 GOP incumbents lost and just three Democrats were felled.

Republicans argue that their incumbent House Members in competitive districts are battle-tested, having survived the anti-Republican years of 2006 and 2008, and that they are well-positioned to beat back any Democratic challenge thrown their way.

“It’s hardly an accomplishment to be among the best of the DCCC’s challengers in a year when their party is struggling to get candidates on the ballot in the first place,” said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Of the few candidates Democrats can name who can walk and chew gum at the same time, their party’s unpopular agenda will do nothing to help them overcome the battle-tested Republicans they face in November.”

Republican officials think the top Democratic challengers have specific vulnerabilities, either in their records or in choosing the wrong year to run.

As a case in point, they’ve noted that Callahan passed up opportunities to challenge Dent in 2006 and 2008, both years that heavily favored Democrats. Republicans also think Brooks will have a tougher time running for Congress in 2010 than in 2008, when she considered running in an adjacent open-seat race that Mary Jo Kilroy (D) eventually won. White will have to run without the coattails of President Barack Obama, who ran a vigorous campaign in Omaha.

Moreover, it will be more difficult for Democratic challengers this cycle to get fundraising help from the national party. The vast majority of the DCCC’s funds — almost $20 million at the end of February — almost certainly will be deployed to dozens of districts where Democratic incumbents face difficult races or have left their competitive seats open to retire or seek other office.

“It just depends on what the demands are on the DCCC by endangered incumbents, because they have to help those people first,” said former Rep. Martin Frost (Texas), who chaired the committee in the 1996 and 1998 cycles. “And they have to try and hold Democratic open seats if they can. And if they have some money left over, they can speculate, they can take some fliers on running against some Republican incumbents. But I imagine that will not be their top priority.”

“These candidates are pretty much going to be on their own,” Frost added.

In a sign of the difficult environment that Democratic challengers face, several who were once promoted by the DCCC bailed on their campaigns before the election year began. They include Texas technology executive Jack McDonald, who had raised $1.1 million for a race against Rep. Michael McCaul (R) that he surprisingly ended around Christmas; Ohio state Rep. Todd Book, who terminated a campaign against Rep. Jean Schmidt (R) amid fundraising difficulties; and Kansas state Sen. Laura Kelly, who entered and then exited a campaign against Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R).

As they fine-tune their campaigns, Democratic challengers and party strategists have signaled that they will contrast their party’s record with that of Republicans during the presidency of George W. Bush, whose unpopularity also tarnished the image of the GOP.

But Republicans warn that using the 2006 playbook — which included nationalizing the elections — as a guide will only imperil Democratic incumbents even more.

In a year of certain Republican gains, Frost said Democrats need to localize the election by painting GOP incumbents as ineffective.

“I think it’s going to be hard for a Democratic challenger to run on national issues this year against a Republican incumbent,” he said. “I think it will be hard. It’s not impossible, but hard.”