Thursday, January 22, 2009

Recruiting Battles Set To Kick Off

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Each election cycle, the competing interests of the various campaign committees collide when it comes to candidate recruitment efforts, as a victory for one arm sometimes leaves an open-seat headache for another.

There are already a handful of House Members being mentioned as possible candidates for Senate and governor in 2010 whose departures would leave big holes for their respective parties to fill.

In Illinois, Republicans want Rep. Mark Kirk to run for the seat now held by appointed Sen. Roland Burris (D). He might be Republicans’ best chance for capturing the seat, but holding his House seat is another story.

Even though Kirk scored an impressive re-election win last fall, the National Republican Congressional Committee would have great difficulty retaining the 10th district seat without the incumbent. Barack Obama won 61 percent in the district, according to analysis compiled by the community at Swing State Project, a Democratic blog.

Senate Republicans would also like Rep. Mike Castle (Del.) to run for Joseph Biden’s former seat and for Rep. Peter King (N.Y.) to run for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D) seat if she is confirmed as secretary of State. That would put two more traditionally Democratic Senate seats in play for the GOP but would result in more NRCC migraines.

But as a Senate GOP strategist explained, parochial interests often trump partisan ones when it comes to recruiting, especially with Democrats almost at the 60-seat filibuster-proof threshold.

“One to two seats make a difference in the Senate,” the strategist said. “The House has a ways to go to regain the majority.”

At this point, more House Republicans appear to be looking at gubernatorial races, and by and large the seats they leave behind won’t be as difficult to hold.

Rep. Zach Wamp (R) has already announced his bid for governor in Tennessee, but he leaves behind a heavily Republican district. Similarly, the NRCC shouldn’t have to worry about the seats held by GOP Reps. Gresham Barrett (S.C.), Jo Bonner (Ala.), Mary Fallin (Okla.) and Pete Hoekstra (Mich.) if they all run for governor. Hoekstra has already announced he will not seek re-election.

The one problem spot could be in Pennsylvania, where Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) has said he is thinking about running for governor in 2010. His suburban Philadelphia seat would be a prime Democratic pickup opportunity.

GOP Reps. Mike Rogers (Mich.) and Greg Walden (Ore.) have also both been mentioned as possible gubernatorial candidates, and Democrats would certainly make a play for their seats if they were to vacate them. But both men were just given new leadership roles at the NRCC, so their departures seem unlikely.

One House GOP operative said that the desire of Members to advance politically is par for the course and that committees learn to expect, and deal with, the open seats.

“Both Democrats and Republicans will face their share of House Members seeking higher office,” the strategist said.

Ultimately, a party’s ability to hold on to a difficult seat depends on several factors, including the overall political climate and the bench of aspiring candidates waiting to run.

In Texas, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) appears to be running for governor in 2010 and party strategists want her to remain in the Senate while she runs — her seat is not up for re-election until 2012 — instead of resigning early and forcing a special election. Houston Mayor Bill White (D) has said he will run if there is a special election in 2010, and GOP strategists worry that he might have a shot at winning, depending on when the special election is scheduled.

Over the past three cycles, Democrats have held 15 of 16 House seats vacated by Members running for higher office, and one of two Senate seats. Republicans have had more trouble recently, holding 14 of 21 open House seats where a Member left to run for something else.

Last cycle, House Democrats were able to limit the number of retirements, in part because only 11 states elected governors and only three of those races were open seats. In 2010, 36 states will elect a governor, including at least 15 open seats, allowing for a lot more upward movement.

Among Democrats, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.) is widely believed to be interested in her state’s open governorship next year. She’s probably the only Democrat who could win the top executive job, but she’s also probably the only Democrat who could hold her at-large seat in the House.

“Committees know and respect that candidate recruitment is paramount for all of us,” Democratic Governors Association Executive Director Nathan Daschle said. “Sometimes this puts the committees at odds with one another, but everyone understands that we are all working toward the same goal — supporting Democratic leadership at all levels of government.”

South Dakota is one example of a seat the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would have difficulty defending. President George W. Bush won there by 22 points in 2004 and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won by 8 points in November.

The DCCC would also have a tough time holding Tennessee’s 4th district if Rep. Lincoln Davis (D) runs for governor. Bush won the district by 17 points in 2004 and McCain carried it by 10. (Correction- McCain won it by 30 points!)

“If a Member thinks this is their moment, it would be difficult to dissuade them,” one House Democratic strategist said.

Alabama Rep. Artur Davis (D) is also exploring a gubernatorial bid, but he would leave behind a very Democratic district. Democratic candidates would also start with the advantage if Reps. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) run for governor.

Other potential House vacancies would be more problematic for the DCCC.

New York Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) has met with Gov. David Paterson (D) about being named to Clinton’s Senate seat. She beat a scandal-tainted GOP incumbent in 2006, but her easy 2008 re-election belies the Republican lean of the district.

Similarly, Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio) is mentioned as a potential candidate for Senate and an open 18th district seat would be a GOP opportunity.

North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler (D) is creating a buzz as a potential Senate candidate as well, particularly since former President Bill Clinton is scheduled to be in Raleigh next week for a fundraiser on Shuler’s behalf. He could probably have his 11th district seat as long as he wants it, but if he leaves, Republicans would target the seat McCain carried by 5 points and Bush by 14 points in 2004.

In Florida, Democratic Reps. Allen Boyd and Ron Klein are eyeing running for Senate, although Boyd’s district would be harder to hold than Klein’s would be.

And some Democrats want Rep. Ben Chandler (D) to challenge Sen. Jim Bunning (R) in Kentucky. Chandler was first elected to Congress in a February 2004 special election, succeeding Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R), who had been elected governor.

The Kentucky seat was the only one House Republicans lost in the 2004 cycle because of a Member leaving to run for higher office. The GOP held all seven seats vacated by Members running for Senate and even picked up one Democratic-held open seat vacated because of a Senate run.

Two years later, in 2006, Republicans lost swing districts in Colorado, Wisconsin and Iowa when Members ran for governor, but they held on to six other open seats that were more Republican in nature.

Democrats held onto all of their open seats that year, on their way to winning the House and Senate majorities.

Last cycle, Republicans lost a seat in Mississippi and two in New Mexico when Members left to run for the Senate. They only managed to keep now-Gov. Bobby Jindal’s (R) seat in Louisiana. Democrats had to defend and hold only very Democratic districts in Maine, Colorado and New Mexico.

“Fortunately, we are living in an era when the Democratic message is resonating all across the country,” Daschle said. “With so many qualified candidates out there, I am certain that we’ll all meet our recruiting goals.”

This story first appeared in Roll Call on January 20, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.