Thursday, October 30, 2008

Choosing Winners, Losers: Did NRCC Make Right Picks?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Like everyone who pays attention to House races, I was more than a little interested to see where the National Republican Congressional Committee would use its limited resources on independent expenditures this cycle.

Now, with Election Day fast approaching and Republicans likely to lose more than two dozen House seats — and quite possibly more than 30 seats — it’s possible to evaluate the NRCC’s decisions.

At least 19 of the 29 districts in which the NRCC advertised seem like good calls. Five others are debatable, while five are not justified, in my view.

The five Democratic seats targeted by the NRCC — Paul Kanjorski’s (Pa.), Nick Lampson’s (Texas), Carol Shea-Porter’s (N.H.), Steve Kagen’s (Wis.) and retiring Rep. Bud Cramer’s (Ala.) — all seem like reasonable choices.

Kanjorski’s ethics problems and poll numbers put him on the list. Lampson’s district is rock-solid Republican and favors challenger Pete Olson (R). Even Democrats will tell you Shea-Porter’s win last time was a fluke, and Cramer’s retirement opens up a generally conservative seat that’s an obvious GOP target. Kagen’s district also leans Republican.

All 11 open Republican seats on the list are obvious places for the NRCC to play. Normally, it shouldn’t have to spend money to defend an at-large seat in Wyoming or Alabama’s 2nd district. But given the national landscape and race-specific factors, nobody ought to question the NRCC’s decisions in those districts.

NRCC funding surely is warranted in three GOP-held districts that have proved to be competitive in the past, in Washington’s 8th district (Rep. Dave Reichert), Ohio’s 1st district (Rep. Steve Chabot) and Nevada’s 3rd (Rep. Jon Porter).

Reichert’s Seattle-area district went for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 presidential election, and Reichert has won two squeakers. Chabot’s district went only narrowly for President Bush in 2004, and the Democratic nominee this time, state Rep. Steve Driehaus, looks formidable, especially given the considerable African-American population in the district. Porter’s district was drawn to be a tossup, but a surge in Democratic registration has changed that. All three Republicans have campaigned hard.

In five other districts with Republican incumbents, it’s less clear that the NRCC’s help was justified.

Rep. Thelma Drake’s Virginia district gave Bush 58 percent four years ago, not quite the 60 percent that Rep. Lee Terry’s Nebraska district did and only a point more than Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s Florida district did. Two other Republicans, Michigan Rep. Tim Walberg and Pennsylvania Rep. Phil English, sit in districts that Bush carried with 54 percent and 53 percent, respectively — good margins but hardly overwhelming.

As incumbents, all five of these Republicans had the opportunity to solidify themselves for re-election — both by working hard to communicate with their constituents and by building up huge war chests. Terry raised the least of the bunch, at $1.4 million through Oct. 15. English raised the most, $2.2 million.

Changing demographics and the Democratic strength at the top of the ticket added to Drake’s woes, justifying NRCC action, in my view. The competitiveness of English’s district and Walberg’s also make it reasonable for the NRCC to expend valuable resources there, though as a candidate for the NRCC chairmanship this cycle, English surely should not be in the vulnerable position he now finds himself.

That leaves Terry, who has again run a lackluster campaign that took his re-election for granted, and Diaz-Balart, who represents a Republican district in the very expensive Miami media market. Given their situations, I’d argue that the NRCC should not have spent money in either race.

Five GOP incumbents who have benefited from a total of more than $2.2 million in NRCC spending also should have been cut loose immediately and told to fend for themselves: Reps. Randy Kuhl (New York’s 29th district), Bill Sali (Idaho’s 1st), Jean Schmidt (Ohio’s 2nd), Mark Souder (Indiana’s 3rd) and Marilyn Musgrave (Colorado’s 4th).

Each of the districts represented by these incumbents is reliably Republican under normal circumstances, and their vulnerability, even in this political environment, reflects their individual weaknesses. In 2004, Bush carried Sali’s district with 69 percent, Schmidt’s with 64 percent, Souder’s with 68 percent and Musgrave’s with 58 percent. Kuhl’s district was the closest of the bunch, with Bush winning it with 56 percent.

It says a great deal about Sali, Schmidt and Souder that they ran so far behind Bush. Not all conservative candidates in those districts necessarily would run so poorly. These three simply have limited appeal, and the NRCC shouldn’t have to spend considerable resources every two years to rescue them in districts that they should retain easily.

Finally, there is no way that the NRCC should have considered rushing into Michele Bachmann’s race after the Minnesota Congresswoman shoved her foot in her mouth on MSNBC recently. The conservative legislator turned a comfortable re-election into an uphill race by taking Chris Matthews’ obvious bait. She has no one to blame but herself, and she has been sitting on more than $1 million that she could have spent to support her candidacy.

Some conservatives had a cow when the NRCC’s IE unit decided to pull the plug on Musgrave and refused to spend its limited funds on Bachmann. Sorry, but the NRCC’s job isn’t to elect conservatives. It’s to elect Republicans.

While damaged GOP incumbents such as Sali, Schmidt and Souder continue to drain the NRCC’s cash in solid Republican districts, strong GOP open-seat candidates such as Darren White (New Mexico’s 1st), Erik Paulsen (Minnesota’s 3rd), Leonard Lance (New Jersey’s 7th), Chris Lee (New York’s 26th) and Steve Stivers (Ohio’s 15th) are fighting for their political lives.

If radio talk-show host Michael Reagan and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins want to spend their time productively, they shouldn’t be beating up the NRCC for its decisions not to waste money on incumbents who made themselves vulnerable. They should be hunting for personable, smart, politically savvy conservatives with campaign skills and thoughtful new ideas.

This column first appeared on on October 28, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.