Monday, October 30, 2006

Candidates Matter Some Places, but Not Everywhere

By Stuart Rothenberg

Two factors have come together to enhance Democratic prospects for a major House sweep — and neither one has much to do with the quality of Democratic recruiting in the two dozen or so top-tier Democratic House opportunities.

First, a handful of Republican House nominees with considerable political baggage have created competitive races for Democrats in places they couldn’t have anticipated. And second, even relatively weak second- and third-tier Democratic candidates are in competitive races because of the developing political wave.

If the GOP loses seats in places such as Idaho’s 1st district, Colorado’s 5th and Michigan’s 7th, you are going to hear plenty of complaining by moderate and establishment Republicans about the Club for Growth.

The club, which supports anti-tax conservatives, helped Bill Sali win the Republican nomination in Idaho, Doug Lamborn win in Colorado and Tim Walberg topple incumbent Rep. Joe Schwarz (R) in Michigan - each in a district that should not be competitive in a normal general election. But 2006 isn’t a normal year, and while all three GOP nominees could well win in November, the contests aren’t slam dunks.

Sali, who seems to take pride in not being a team player, may well lose some Republican votes to attorney Larry Grant (D). Colorado conservative Lamborn hasn’t been endorsed by outgoing Rep. Joel Hefley (R), who believes that the Republican nominee ran such an unseemly primary campaign that he isn’t backing Lamborn over Democrat Jay Fawcett. And in Michigan, Walberg angered some Republicans when he ran against a sitting Congressman, though he certainly should be able to beat Sharon Renier, a fourth-tier Democrat who had raised less than $40,000 through Oct. 18.

Elsewhere, at least a couple of other Republicans who also should be headed for certain victory are suffering from self-inflicted wounds or serious political baggage.

In Florida’s 13th district, Vern Buchanan, who made some enemies as a businessman and during the GOP Congressional primary, has yet to unify his party. And in Wyoming, the state’s at-large Representative, Barbara Cubin, has done what she can to turn a laugher into a serious contest.

The "bigger candidate" problem for Republicans is that this cycle, candidate quality doesn’t mean what it did in the past.

By traditional measures, Republicans have a long list of well-qualified, well-prepared Congressional candidates, many of them incumbents. Unfortunately for them, many voters don’t seem to care much about credentials this year. They just want to send a message, and they don’t care about the messenger as long as he or she has a (D) behind his or her name.

In 2002 and 2004, voters were concerned about terrorism and homeland security, and they seemed inclined to prefer political hopefuls with experience and proven accomplishments. Why take a chance on an amateur who had to make important decisions about the economy and the nation’s security?

This year, many of the Democrats making a serious run at Republican incumbents and open seats never have held elective office and have no experience in a legislative body. By many measures, they are relatively weak.

Perhaps the starkest contrast in credentials can be seen in three GOP open seats in the Midwest — in Minnesota’s 6th, Illinois’ 6th and Wisconsin’s 8th, where the three GOP nominees, Michele Bachmann, Peter Roskam and John Gard, are state legislators, while the Democrats in the three contests, Patty Wetterling, Tammy Duckworth and Steve Kagen, never have held elective office.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In California’s 4th, Charlie Brown (D) is a 26-year veteran of the Air Force who served on the professional staff of the Roseville Police Department. His "elective" experience, according to his Web site, is limited to service chairing the "Supervisory Committee" of a credit union.

In California’s 11th district, Democrat Jerry McNerney has been an engineer and energy consultant and is now CEO of a start-up company that manufactures wind turbines. In Washington’s 8th district, Democratic nominee Darcy Burner was a former manager at Microsoft.

Heath Shuler (D) in North Carolina’s 11th is a former football player and a real estate agent. Democrat Joe Donnelly, in Indiana’s 2nd district, is an attorney and businessman who lost bids for the state Senate and for Congress; he never has held elective office. The same goes for businessman Jack Davis, the Democrat who’s taking on GOP Rep. Tom Reynolds in New York’s 26th district.

And I’m not done yet. Democrats Ellen Simon (Arizona’s 1st), Charlie Stuart (Florida’s 8th), Christine Jennings (Florida’s 13th), Tim Walz (Minnesota’s 1st), Victoria Wulsin (Ohio’s 2nd), Lois Murphy (Pennsylvania’s 6th), Joe Sestak (Pennsylvania’s 7th), Patrick Murphy (Pennsylvania’s 8th) and Chris Carney (Pennsylvania’s 10th) also never have held elective office. There are others, but you get the drift.

I’m certainly not suggesting that all of these Democrats lack qualifications to be in Congress. Many current Members held no previous elective office, and a background in politics or government doesn’t guarantee success in Congress. Obviously, businessmen, lawyers and community activists can be - and have been - successful in legislative bodies.

But it is remarkable how similar this group of Democratic candidates is to the GOP class of 1994, when, by my count, 37 freshmen were elected without having held a previous elective office.

Some of those Republicans, including now-Sens. John Ensign (Nev.) and Richard Burr (N.C.), Rep. Sue Kelly (N.Y.) and former Rep. George Nethercutt (Wash.), developed into respected, successful legislators. But others, including former Reps. Wes Cooley (Ore.), Enid Greene Waldholtz (Utah) and Steve Stockman (Texas), were disasters.

Every cycle is different. Often, voters are looking for candidates with legislative experience and who are Washington, D.C., savvy. This year, those assets appear to be liabilities. And that’s another reason why Republicans are finding the going tougher than expected in House races.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on October 26, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.