House GOP ‘Young Guns’ unlikely to fare as well in 2012 election as in 2010

The "Young Guns" designation is meant to boost Republican House candidates well-prepared for wins in tough districts, but three-fourths of those who have received the title this cycle are still locked in close races with their Democratic opponents. 

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In 2010, two-thirds of the nearly 90 candidates given the designation rode a Republican wave into Congress, an achievement lauded by House Majority Whip and Young Guns co-founder Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)

"The Young Guns program is essential to recruiting and electing principled reform minded conservatives to Congress. My efforts from 2010 continue today to ensure we build on our House majority so we can put America on a better path forward,” he said in an email to The Hill.

But this year, with a more polarized electorate, Young Gun candidates are unlikely to fare as well.

Of the 42 candidates named as Young Guns by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), 13 are locked in races that The Hill rates as currently leaning or likely Democratic. Ten are tilting or solidly in the GOP column, and 17 of the races remain toss-ups.

But even some of those Republican Young Guns facing likely defeat on Tuesday felt the designation offered them an advantage, boosting them to prominence in local and national media and aiding their fundraising efforts.

The program was launched primarily as a recruitment effort by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), McCarthy and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in the 2008 cycle to improve Republican fortunes after a poor showing in 2006.

In 2009, NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) brought the program under the purview of the committee and established a rigorous set of benchmarks for candidates to achieve Young Gun status.

Candidates must prove they can be competitive in a general election contest by showing a high level of fundraising and grassroots support, as well as a clear strategy to win, before they’re awarded the designation.

And for some, like Republican Ricky Gill, that planning stage has been one of the biggest advantages of gaining Young Gun status.

“It really forces you to do the work early, to get prepared. It forces you to really buckle down and lay out a plan, a very concrete plan for victory,” said Gill campaign spokesman Colin Hunter.

Gill is currently the underdog in his race to unseat Rep. Jerry McNerney (D) in California’s 9th District, which heavily favors the Democrat, but he’s outraised McNerney nearly 2 to 1 and observers agree his is a race ripe for an upset.

Gill’s race is one of a handful of competitive races in California, one of three states considered House battlegrounds for the high number of competitive seats in play. Those states -- including Illinois and New York -- also happen to be states where Democrats usually post a strong showing, and states that will go heavily for President Obama on Election Day.

“In these competitive races in Illinois, California and New York, these are places -- orphan states -- where it's a little bit tougher for us. These are races that probably would be less competitive if we didn't have candidates that went through this process that made them stronger contenders,” said one McCarthy aide.

Because they’re not typically hospitable to Republican challengers, Illinois, California and New York often lack the local support to help boost some of these candidates to a win -- and that’s where the Young Guns program can come into play.

“This is the only infrastructure for some of these candidates where we don't have, say, the state party infrastructure and the president's going to run away with [the state],” the aide added.

And the Young Gun designation helps these otherwise relatively unknown candidates overcome one of the biggest hurdles to mounting an effective challenge against an incumbent: Fundraising.

“The designation obviously helps with fundraising. It signals to people in the fundraising community that these folks are top-tier candidates who have put together the strategy needed to win,” said NRCC spokeswoman Andrea Bozek.

McCarthy, too, has personally raised or contributed at least $1 million in total to the Young Gun candidates this cycle.

Some candidates who receive the label also get the backing of YG Action Fund, the PAC founded by a former Cantor aide that works to elect conservatives in the Young Gun mold to congress. The PAC works independently of the NRCC, but spokesman Brad Dayspring said that it does generally choose the candidates it supports from the NRCC slate of Young Guns.

Those receiving the backing of the PAC are usually on the younger side, however, and YG Action Fund places a premium on those candidates running in tough districts with minimal funds.

The PAC, and its affiliated nonprofit, YG Network, will spend between $12 and $15 million to elect Young Gun candidates this cycle.

For those who do make it to Congress, the Young Gun label sticks with them. It’s been a “bonding mechanism” for the House freshmen who earned the designation in the 2010 cycle, the McCarthy aide said.

And Cantor, McCarthy and Ryan are known to take these candidates under their wing when they matriculate into the House.

“This is a kind of mentor program that doesn't just stop on the campaign trail -- it also goes to the floor of the House, it goes to the committee room. They want to help these members as much as they can,” the McCarthy aide said.

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