Democratic initiatives lead to Republican enthusiasm

Republicans are using the outrage among their base about Democrats’ handling of healthcare reform, energy legislation and the economy to land quality candidates in a number of competitive races.

Many of those GOP candidates are in Washington this week for a three-day campaign school, where they will be taught to fundraise, handle the media and abide by campaign finance laws.

And while most of those candidates will not become members of Congress, the GOP has an early stable of good competitors.

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“The issue matrix is working for us. Cap-and-trade, healthcare, the economy, obviously, are all coming together,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who headed the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) in the 2008 cycle. “This is a time when you can sell the product in a way that hasn’t really been the case in the last four years.”

That issue matrix seems to give both parties more talking points by the day. Money from the economic stimulus plan will still be flowing by Election Day; House Democrats passed cap-and-trade legislation by a tiny seven-vote margin last month; and the Democrats are struggling to regain momentum in the healthcare debate.

Democrats claim those measures are signs of legislative progress. But the impact for Republicans has been a reinvigorated base, which has, in recent weeks, launched a number of new campaigns aimed at dethroning the majority party.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. It verges on almost anger, but it’s real frustration with what they see happening in Washington right now,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), vice chairman of the NRCC. “The cloud that’s been over the GOP for the last four to six years has lifted when it comes to recruiting and energy and excitement at the grassroots level.”

A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spokesman admitted his party is starting off at a disadvantage, but said recruiting would not concern Democrats.

“Despite facing a headwind this cycle, we are continuing to hold the ‘Republican Party of No’ accountable for standing in the way of progress and for protecting the failed status quo,” DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer said.

Some of the GOP’s strongest recruits are running in heavily Republican districts lost in the landslides of 2006 and 2008. They include Iraq war veteran Vaughn Ward (R), running against Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho); Winter Park City Commissioner Karen Diebel (R), taking on Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.); and state Sen. Alan Nunnelee (R), who is challenging Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.).

In those districts, some candidates have signaled they will use President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as national bogeymen to demonstrate their policy disagreements, even though many more conservative Democrats may have voted against controversial legislation.

“With or without Childers’s vote, [Democrats are] passing legislation because of the leadership team that he supported,” Nunnelee told The Hill this week. While Childers may not have voted with Democrats every time, Nunnelee stresses Childers’s ties to Pelosi, noting “he has voted for her 100 percent of the time on the critical vote” to make her Speaker.

Republicans in Washington are doing their best to keep Pelosi and Democratic initiatives — most notably the economic stimulus bill — on the front burner in districts around the nation. The party has funded advertisements in several districts over each recess period aimed at keeping pressure even on Democrats who may not always be vulnerable.

And, according to the NRCC’s top recruiter, it is a sign of the GOP’s newfound energy that the party is competing in districts where its candidates are distinct long shots.

Republicans have touted candidates like Springfield, Ore., Mayor Sid Leiken, who is challenging Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.); California Assemblyman Van Tran, who is running against Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.); and state Sen. Dan Kapanke, who is plotting a run against Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.).

DeFazio, Sanchez and Kind each won easily in 2008, and Republicans have taken heat for suggesting they can beat the well-entrenched Democrats. But, said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the fact that good candidates are getting into long-shot races shows something about the GOP.

“It shows how deep our bench is, where we’re going,” said McCarthy, who is heading up recruiting efforts for the NRCC. “If you look at the overall structure on what we’re doing on recruitment, we’re in seats we haven’t even run anybody lately.”

Rudominer denied that Democrats would break a sweat defending some of their incumbents who now appear safer, but he said the party is “taking nothing for granted” next year.

Nationwide, the NRCC has succeeded in convincing some candidates to run who would not run in 2008, said Cole.

“There were some promising guys last time we tried to recruit that I think wisely took a pass,” Cole said. “We’ve got a much better environment [now], and I think people just sense that.”

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The party has also been successful in recruiting more experienced candidates in some districts. Though they lost last year, former members of Congress running again bring a political and fundraising base that other first-time candidates might lack.

Ex-Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), who lost their House seats in 2008, and ex-Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who lost a race for Senate, are all running for their old posts, putting early targets on the backs of freshman Democrats Steve Driehaus (Ohio), Mark Schauer (Mich.) and Harry Teague (N.M.), respectively.

But those Republicans served in Congress as President Bush was in office, a fact Democrats will make use of when they attack.

“In 2008, voters rejected these Republicans for unconditionally backing President Bush’s failed policies, which created the economic mess we’re currently in,” Rudominer said. “The last thing the American people need in the Bush recession are a bunch of Republican members of Congress banking on failure and offering a return to the failed Republican policies of old.”