Monday, October 22, 2007

Mood + Money + GOP Retirements = Democratic Bonanza

By Stuart Rothenberg

Still more than a year out from the 2008 elections, only a fool would assert unequivocally which party will gain House seats and how large that gain will be. But even with more retirements likely and candidate recruitment still far from over, it is starting to look like another potentially very good year for Democratic House candidates.

National Republican Congressional Committee strategists have more than their fair share of problems. The biggest may be the damage to the Republican brand, which stems from President Bush’s problems as well as from a series of highly publicized scandals and ethical problems among Republicans.

While Republicans no longer control Congress, Democrats are still likely to benefit from the electorate’s desire for change. For many Americans, Bush is still in charge, and voting Democratic up and down the ballot is the surest way to change the country’s direction.

Some Republicans are arguing that the Democrats will be punished by voters who want to send a message to all incumbents, regardless of party, and that when it comes to House races, Republican candidates can run as vehicles for change.

That’s possible, but unlikely, except in those cases where a House Democrat has his or her own personal problems.

Given the GOP’s image problem, the party’s failure to accomplish much of anything during its last two years in control of Congress and the party’s role in blocking additional funds for embryonic stem-cell research, immigration and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, it will be relatively easy for Democrats to position themselves once again as the party that is most likely to bring about change.

Nobody can be certain exactly what the Democratic financial advantage means because it has been years since the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had one. But it is likely to be another significant Democratic asset over the next year.

For at least the past four or five cycles, the NRCC has been able to throw cash at races at will, propping up weak GOP incumbents (including a few who seemed allergic to fundraising) and putting Democratic seats into play. Now, it’s very possible that Democrats will have that opportunity, making it difficult for Republican challengers to knock off allegedly vulnerable Democratic incumbents and forcing the NRCC to defend late-developing threats during this cycle.

The recent flurry of Republican retirements — Reps. Jerry Weller in Illinois, Jim Ramstad in Minnesota, Heather Wilson in New Mexico and Deborah Pryce and Ralph Regula in Ohio — could be only the tip of the iceberg for 2008. All of those open seats are excellent Democratic targets.

Democrats have reason to hope that a slew of new challengers against Republicans who won unimpressively last year — Tim Walberg and Joe Knollenberg in Michigan and Jon Porter in Nevada, for example — could flip those districts in 2008.

Presumably strong Democratic recruits against a number of GOP incumbents who were overlooked last time — Reps. Jim Saxton in New Jersey, Sam Graves in Missouri and Vito Fossella in New York, among them — could give Democrats a number of new opportunities.

The DCCC’s best opportunities could well be in districts where inexperienced or underestimated challengers came close to upsetting GOP incumbents and are trying to return for a rematch. That list includes Republican Reps. Robin Hayes (N.C.), Dave Reichert (Wash.), Mike Ferguson (N.J.), Jim Walsh (N.Y.), Randy Kuhl (N.Y.), Jean Schmidt (Ohio) and possibly Mark Kirk (Ill.)

Of course, it’s way too early for Democrats to declare victory. Republican candidates will spend the next year putting responsibility for the nation’s trouble on the Democratic Congress, and the presidential race could rebrand both parties in a way that minimizes Republican headaches.

Democrats undoubtedly will have trouble holding on to a handful of basically Republican districts that they won last year only because of unusual circumstances.

Districts that Bush won comfortably in 2004 and formerly represented by Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Don Sherwood (R-Pa.) could easily dump freshman Democratic Congressmen to return to their normal partisan ways, as could districts in California, Kansas and Florida.

GOP prospects of regaining previously Republican House seats that surprisingly fell to Democrats in 2006 should be improved by a partisan, ideological presidential contest.

Still, the public’s overall desire for change — so strong among Democrats and independent voters who voted Democratic in unusual numbers last year — remains a big challenge not only for Republican challengers but also for GOP incumbents who survived last time but face a more experienced, better-funded test in 2008.

At this point, anything from little net change in the House to a considerable Democratic win seems possible. The one thing that seems certain is that Democrats will once again control the House after next year’s elections.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on October 18, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.