By Aaron Blake - 09/29/09 12:13 AM EDT
Rep. Ike Skelton hasn’t taken less than 62 percent of the vote in 27 years; Rep. Alan Mollohan hasn’t taken less than 64 percent since 1984; and Rep. Rick Boucher hasn’t taken less than 59 percent in the last quarter-century.
A cycle after the Democrats went all out to stretch the map to new lengths, Republicans are doing their best imitation. The GOP is attempting to go after a number of seats it hasn’t pursued in decades, along with others that have gone by the wayside in recent cycles.
“They did a wonderful job of going out and finding candidates to run against our candidates that matched the district, and that’s what we’re doing,” said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), fresh off a recruiting trip to four states with lead National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) recruiter Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
The hope is that an environment shift can deliver them extra seats. And candidates are starting to join the cause.
West Virginia state Sen. Clark Barnes became the latest over the weekend when he signed up to run against Mollohan (D-W.Va.). Former U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin jumped into the race against Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) a week ago. And, in between, Missouri state Sen. Bill Stouffer became the second formidable candidate to run against Skelton (D-Mo.).
The magnitude of the change in the environment is most apparent in Stouffer, who just four years ago sponsored a bill to name a bridge after the incumbent he is now challenging.
“My beef is with the leadership of Congress, and the only way the 4th district can have their say about the leadership is to change their congressman,” Stouffer said. “This has a whole lot more to do with the congressional leadership than it does with Ike Skelton.”
This kind of logic is behind much of the GOP hopes in these types of districts. They say Democrats in conservative districts now have to answer for a party with total power in Washington, and they’re having to take tougher votes than at any point since the early 1990s.
GOP presidential nominee John McCain won all four districts mentioned so far — Boucher’s (D-Va.), Mollohan’s, Skelton’s and Snyder’s — by double digits last year, yet the party has been unable to field credible challengers to any of them for at least a decade.
They haven’t landed one in Boucher’s district yet, but state Del. Terry Kilgore should decide on the race shortly after his 2009 reelection bid.
Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said the districts simply have changed. Snyder’s went from a one-point margin for President George W. Bush in 2000 to a 10-point McCain margin. Boucher’s went from a 13-point Bush margin to a 19-point McCain margin.
He said such districts become “low-hanging fruit” in a certain environment, and that the party will almost inevitably get recruits, even against a longtime incumbent.
“What you have is the immovable object meets the irresistible force,” said Davis, a former chairman of the NRCC. “And the parties don’t know what happens until you give it a shot.”
Other districts that have jumped onto the GOP’s map include those held by Reps. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), Ben Chandler (D-Ky.), Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), John Tanner (D-Tenn.), Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and David Obey (D-Wis.). In all of those races, Republicans feel as though they have someone who could win under the right circumstances.
Westmoreland said that, if nothing else, challenging longtime members will keep them from sending money to others. The GOP successfully tied up Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) in 2008, when he shelled out half a million dollars less to his colleagues than the previous cycle because of a well-funded challenger.
Skelton and Obey are both full committee chairmen, and others on the list likewise pack significant seniority and war chests. Those two lawmakers, along with Sanchez and Kind, were also considered targets for retirement, with Sanchez and Kind eyeing their states’ gubernatorial races, but they all took a pass.
“It benefits us to have people in those districts, because it keeps their money at home,” Westmoreland said.
Much of the Democrats’ success in expanding the map over the last two cycles was credited to former
Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Howard Dean’s 50-State Strategy, which sought to put Democratic infrastructure in areas it hadn’t been before. Democrats went on to win seats in areas they hadn’t played in for long periods of time.
By contrast, Republicans already have organizations on the ground in many of the districts they’re targeting, which on their surface are more fertile than many districts taken by Democrats in 2006 and 2008.
Democrats noted that Republicans still have a number of holes in districts that should have been leading targets, but they aren’t taking any chances in the new districts on the map, either.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has adopted a defensive “no surprises” policy this year when it comes to tough races. The aim is to avoid the stark upsets it inflicted on incumbents like Reps. Virgil Goode (R-Va.), Jim Leach (R-Iowa) and Jim Ryun (R-Kan.) in 2006 and 2008.
DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said that, even with a shifting environment, Democratic incumbents will be tough to take down.
“Our members have defined themselves independently in their districts,” Crider said. “It’ll take more than Republicans hitting them for one cycle to change that opinion.”
Democrats were second-guessed on some of their late spending in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, when they had plenty of targets on the map that didn’t get the desired attention.
Former NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said there are risks to expanding the playing field, but that many of them are mitigated for the GOP right now.
“There’s always risk involved, because there are judgment calls as to what you can play,” he said. “But the reality is, I think, we’re mostly down to the seats we’re not likely to lose.”