Monday, August 06, 2007

Even in Bad Environment, NRCC Finds Willing Candidates

By Stuart Rothenberg

The national political environment looks pretty crummy for Republicans these days, and I’m not at all sure that it will improve between now and the time voters go to the polls next November. But that hasn’t stopped a handful of potentially strong GOP challengers from launching their bids against Democratic incumbents.

I recently met five GOP House candidates who are running for Congress and attended a National Republican Congressional Committee candidate school, and I was impressed.

Two of the hopefuls, Sandy Treadwell (New York’s 20th) and Tom Rooney (Florida’s 16th), face primary opposition before they can claim to be their party’s general election nominees, while the three others — David Cappiello (Connecticut’s 5th), Quico Canseco (Texas’ 23rd) and Nick Jordan (Kansas’ 3rd) — currently are without major primary opposition.

Treadwell is a former New York secretary of state and state GOP chairman, and he has the look and thoughtful style of a Senator. He is running for the right to take on freshman Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) in a very Republican, upstate district that fell because the sitting Republican Congressman, then-Rep. John Sweeney, embarrassed himself one too many times.

Rooney, an attorney, Army veteran and former assistant attorney general in Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s (R) administration, is low-key and extremely earnest. He hopes to be his party’s nominee against freshman Rep. Tim Mahoney, who won by riding the Democratic wave — and the embarrassing resignation of the district’s incumbent Republican Congressman, then-Rep. Mark Foley — to victory.

Cappiello, a state Senator from Danbury, is feisty and a critic of the Iraq War. A moderate on social issues, he has proved to be a hard worker and appears to be extremely comfortable in the role of candidate. He hopes to oust Democratic Rep. Christopher Murphy, a young former state Senator who defeated veteran Rep. Nancy Johnson (R) by a surprisingly comfortable 12 points last year.

Canseco is a wealthy businessman who hopes to win back the district lost by former GOP Rep. Henry Bonilla in a December runoff. An attorney and banker, he has been active in state GOP politics and he oozes optimism — maybe a bit too much optimism at this point in the cycle — about his chances of knocking off Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D), who now is serving his second tour of duty in the House.

State Sen. Nick Jordan may have the toughest road of the five Republican challengers, since he faces five-term Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore, who has benefited from deep divisions between social conservatives and moderates in the local Republican Party. Jordan, a businessman who was appointed to his seat in 1995 but elected the next year, somehow must bridge that chasm.

One reason these Republicans are optimistic is that they are all running in either competitive or Republican-leaning districts.

In 2004, President Bush drew 57 percent of the vote in Texas’ 23rd, 55 percent in both Florida’s 16th and Kansas’ 3rd and 53 percent in New York’s 20th. The only one of the five districts that he lost was Connecticut’s 5th, which Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) carried by just five-tenths of a percentage point.

On paper, of the five hopefuls, the ones with the best shot at winning a seat in Congress initially appear to be Treadwell and Rooney, which probably is why they are the two who have primary opposition right now.

In both cases, GOP incumbents self- destructed in the previous cycle, giving long-shot Democrats the rare opportunity to both ride a partisan wave and contrast themselves with personally damaged Republican officeholders (or, in the case of Foley in Florida, a former officeholder).

Republican strategists point out that an uptick in turnout because of the presidential year will bring out new voters who didn’t participate in the midterm election and therefore never could have voted for the new Democrats in these districts.

But incumbency has proved to be a sizable advantage over the years, and Gillibrand, Murphy and Mahoney have two years to make a connection with voters, as Moore has done in a Republican-leaning district. Indeed, Moore is not alone. Even with the 2006 Democratic wave, eight Republicans continue to represent districts won by Kerry, clear proof that incumbency still has some benefits.

Finally, it’s important to remember that five credible, personable challengers better be only the tip of the iceberg for the NRCC if the committee hopes to have a good 2008. The Republicans need to field dozens of top-tier hopefuls if they are going to make significant House gains next year, and they must hope the candidates will be able to make their races local contests, not referendums on Iraq and the Bush presidency.

Anyway, remember the names Treadwell, Rooney, Cappiello, Canseco and Jordan. They all have potential, and they could well be involved in some of the more competitive races this cycle.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on August 2, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.