Thursday, September 18, 2008

Now It’s the DCCC That Is Swimming Against the Tide

By Stuart Rothenberg

In a curious coincidence of timing, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added a number of Congressional districts to its various lists of competitive contests at exactly the same time that Republicans are seeing an uptick in their poll and fundraising numbers and an improved political landscape.

GOP strategists are quick to point out that they don’t know whether their brightened prospects will last, but one noted that recently received survey data “were the most encouraging that I’ve seen in two years.” A number of different surveys have shown a closer Congressional generic ballot and a better GOP image recently.

“We are seeing a real change up and down the ballot, from state legislative races to Congressional to the presidential,” said one enthusiastic Republican operative.

Given that, it certainly appears that the DCCC is running a risk by promoting some candidates who have little or no chance to win in the fall, and by lumping together very strong contenders with second-tier campaigns.

The DCCC’s “Red to Blue” program, which presumably includes the committee’s top takeover targets, includes some likely winners, such as Ethan Berkowitz in Alaska, Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona, Betsy Markey in Colorado, John Adler in New Jersey, and Michael McMahon and Dan Maffei in New York. But it also includes candidates with far less chance of winning.

The long shots include Sam Bennett, who is newly added to the program and faces an uphill fight against Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.). Dent, according to one knowledgeable GOP insider, is very popular in his Democratic-leaning district and is “in good shape for re-election.” Interestingly, in a year when observers have been flooded with upbeat Democratic polls, neither Bennett nor the DCCC has released survey data to prove her viability.

State Sen. David Boswell (D), running in Kentucky’s open 2nd district and also just added to Red to Blue, had a lead in some initial polling but faces considerable problems in his bid to win the GOP-held seat. He showed $45,000 in the bank on June 30, while his GOP opponent, state Sen. Brett Guthrie, had $661,000 on hand at the same point.

Boswell starts with a bit better name identification than Guthrie, but neither man is known in the all-important — and expensive — Louisville media market, which is why Boswell has serious problems in this race. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) isn’t likely to help Boswell at the top of the ballot, either.

Boswell certainly has a chance in this race, but only if the DCCC and its labor allies come in with a huge media buy.

Also on the list is Judy Feder (D), who has a long way to go to become a top-tier challenger to Rep. Frank Wolf (R) in Virginia’s 10th district. As she did two years ago when she drew 41 percent against Wolf, Feder is raising plenty of cash.

But Wolf’s numbers are in the stratosphere. He is personally popular and holds a huge lead over her in an expensive media market. And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is winning this district, which President Bush carried with 55 percent four years ago.

Democrat Anne Barth, who is also on Red to Blue, is challenging Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) in West Virginia. Capito is also wildly popular and holds better than a 2-1 lead over Barth. And to no one’s surprise, McCain is clobbering Obama in the district.

But if Red to Blue is a mishmash of serious and long shot races, the committee’s two other candidate lists — “Emerging Races” and “Races to Watch” — include some truly odd contests.

The DCCC recently added Jim Harlan (D) of Louisiana’s 1st district to its Emerging Races list even though the district’s Democratic Performance Index is a microscopic 34.3 percent, meaning it is a rock-solid Republican seat. Bush drew 71 percent in the district four years ago, and when it became open earlier this year following then-Rep. Bobby Jindal’s (R) election as governor, Rep. Steve Scalise (R) won the special election easily.

Democrats say they have a self-funder in the race, but that alone doesn’t make this seat competitive. Nor does it make South Carolina’s 1st district (DPI 41.6 percent) a serious takeover opportunity, though it too is classified as an Emerging Race.

And then there is the DCCC’s all-new Races to Watch list. Quite simply, it is bizarre.

Included on the list are Josh Zeitz, running against Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), and Rob Hubler, running against Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). Zeitz, who had $125,000 in the bank on June 30, is challenging a Republican Congressman who is both incredibly popular and holds a commanding lead in the race. Hubler, who had only $27,000 in the bank on June 30, is running in by far the most Republican district in Iowa, where McCain will run up a huge margin.

Some Democrats note that their party isn’t committed to spending money on the Emerging Races and Races to Watch, and go so far as to acknowledge that those contests are only long shots, at best.

But if the DCCC is going to go out of its way to promote certain races, it ought to be responsible for those selections. And if it puts absurd races on its list, it devalues those lists altogether.

The reality, of course, is that these lists are gimmicks — gimmicks to try to drive resources and media coverage to them without the committee necessarily having to spend its own money on candidates who have little or no chance of winning. In fact, these gimmicks often work.

But if the national landscape continues to move even slightly more back toward the Republicans, eroding (but certainly not eliminating) the Democrats’ huge early advantages, DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) might find himself promoting dozens of candidates with no chance of winning. And that would be embarrassing and self-defeating.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 15, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.