Campaign 2010

Mar 14, 2008

The Chicago Tribune - Republicans struggling to get A-list candidates

The candidates who lifted Democrats to House control in 2006 were a carefully culled, largely centrist team that included military veterans, business executives, a tough-talking sheriff and a former pro quarterback.

The list of Republican recruits for House races this year tells a much different story. Against freshman Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.), the GOP has ... no one. Same for the race to replace retiring Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill).

In the 29 House districts nationwide that Democrats consider most vulnerable for a Republican pickup, only 19 boast a challenger the Democrats deem "credible." For the last 75 years, parties that lost power in the House and Senate, as the Republicans did two years ago, have almost always rebounded to gain seats the following election -- most recently in 1996, when Democrats recovered from the "Republican Revolution" of 1994 to net eight House districts.

But for the GOP this year, all signs point to another election under siege.

Their House candidates trail Democrats in fundraising and voter enthusiasm. Their incumbents are retiring in droves. Some of their longtime strongholds now appear to be in play, as illustrated by the Democrats' upset win in former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's district last Saturday.

For several key seats, GOP leaders have recruited candidates whom analysts consider second-tier. In others, they've recruited no one.

Hard GOP choices

With so many seats to defend and such a disadvantage in resources, party leaders are facing tough choices on where to focus their attention this fall. A list of top Democratic targets leaked by the National Republican Congressional Committee last week, for example, includes barely half of the Democrats who first won their seats in 2006 and delivered the House majority.

The non-partisan Cook Political Report projects that spending a second straight election on defense could cost the GOP up to a dozen seats this fall. Long-term, leaders in both parties say, it could solidify the Democrats' hold on the House by allowing some of their most vulnerable freshmen to cruise to a critical first re-election.

"We have to literally beat history in order to win seats this time," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Privately, many GOP aides on Capitol Hill say they expect the party to lose ground in the House and also in the Senate, where Republicans have more vulnerable incumbents and open seats to defend than Democrats. Publicly, national Republicans take solace in the underlying demographics of the House in a presidential year: Democrats hold more than 60 districts that President Bush carried in 2004.

"The road back to a Republican majority travels through the many Republican-leaning districts that are currently represented by a Democrat," said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Many of those Democrats have had to take some tough votes and walk the plank for [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi. They have provided us with plenty of fodder for the fall."

In 2006, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), then the DCCC chairman, aggressively recruited challengers based less on ideology and more on their ability to harness voter unrest over scandals involving Republican House members, a faltering economy and the Iraq war.

From the moment those challengers became freshmen members of Congress, Democratic leaders pushed hard to protect them, sharing the spotlight in major policy announcements and assisting them in raising hundreds of thousands of dollars each.

The moves helped "inoculate" many of these Democratic newcomers against strong Republican challengers in 2008, said David Wasserman, the Cook Political Report's House editor.

1st re-election toughest

The list of freshmen who appear to have scared off serious opponents includes Reps. Zack Space (D- Ohio), Brad Ellsworth (D- Ind.) and Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), all of whom represent heavily Republican districts. That could mean a pass in what history suggests is often the toughest re-election race for a House member: the first.

"The longer that you're in the office," said Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.), who beat a GOP incumbent in 2004 and won re-election in 2006, "the better opportunity you have to strengthen the relationship with those you serve."

Republicans are bullish on Steve Greenberg, the businessman challenging Bean in her northwest suburban district. But with 50 percent more Republican-held seats than Democratic seats considered "in play" this fall -- and with national Democrats ending January with more than five times as much cash on hand for House races than national Republicans -- it's unclear how much help Greenberg and other GOP challengers can expect.

Analysts and party leaders say the playing field could change depending on who wins the tumultuous race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Newly minted Rep. Bill Foster won Hastert's former seat with an advertising boost from home-state Sen. Barack Obama.

"If Barack's the nominee," said Emanuel, who has not endorsed Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the race, "everything's on the table in Illinois."

Others, such as Hare, the downstate freshman, warn that Democrats could turn off House voters nationwide if the nomination battle drags through summer and produces a controversial Democratic National Convention. "We do it at our own peril," he said.