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Democrats Lagging In House Recruitment

House Democrats entered the 108th Congress with an ambitious plan to “expand the playing field” for the 2004 elections, but the effort has yielded few top-flight challengers thus far, leaving some Members downcast about the party’s prospects.

In a bid to help kick their recruiting drive into gear, leaders have re-enlisted Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and asked him to once again take a leading role in trying to win commitments from sorely needed candidates.

While acknowledging that, six months into the election cycle and facing a 12-seat deficit in the chamber, they have few announced candidates, top Democrats insist their recruiting strategy will eventually translate into better, more competitive candidates.

Several leadership sources said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) pushed Hoyer to return to the role he had played within the Caucus for several years.

Hoyer served as the party’s chief recruiter from 1995 through the 2000 election cycle under then-Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). He now joins Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), whom Pelosi tapped in January to lead DCCC recruiting.

So far, fewer than a handful of prominent Democrats have announced plans to challenge for Republican-held seats in 2004. Democrat Jon Jennings, a former Boston Celtics assistant coach, has announced his intention to take on Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.); John Barrow, an attorney, is prepping to face Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.); and Shaun McNally, a former state Representative, is making a bid against Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.).

“I don’t remember a cycle like this before,” said one long-time Democratic aide. “We’re pretty light on candidates.”

But Matsui said the party is taking its time in assembling a slate of contenders because it has learned from its mistakes. In some cases, he said, Democrats are trying to clear the primary field to allow for one candidate to advance, and in others are trying to avoid getting behind a hopeful too quickly for fear of being burned by revelations about their backgrounds.

“We’re spending time doing that,” Matsui said. “We don’t feel we’re behind. What we need to show is patience. I’m very comfortable where we are.”

Matsui said bringing Hoyer on board was not a reflection of failures to this point, but rather a recognition that the Minority Whip can add to what’s being done already.

“Bart has done a great job,” Matsui said. “Steny has all this experience. He’s done it for two cycles. We asked him to sit down and work with Bart and work with us. He’s very eager to do that.”

Democrats are revising their recruiting strategy this cycle, targeting 42 House districts — a bigger playing field they say includes many Republican seats the committee hasn’t recruited for in the past.

The DCCC said it is working more aggressively in each of those districts, rather than just the “top-tier” seats the parties battle over every two years. And it is sending out staff throughout the country to meet with local elected officials, labor leaders, Democratic activists and leaders and prospective candidates in those districts.

Gordon said he believes both parties are facing difficulty in pulling candidates in early this election cycle.

“I think recruiting for both parties is as active as in the past, but in terms of the first-tier candidate announcement, it’s slower this year,” Gordon said. “Partly that’s because of 9/11 and the war in Iraq, as well as candidates tied up in the Legislature.”

Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said given how many seats Democrats need to gain, the recruiting pace makes sense: “We have to be riding thoroughbreds, not a lame pony. I do believe the earlier the better, but not at any cost.”

Some of the Democratic focus on being deliberative is born of experiences in the past cycle, when a number of their candidates in key races were severely damaged by ethics allegations.

At the head of that group was attorney Champ Walker (D), the son of the state Senate Majority Leader, who lost a strongly Democratic east central Georgia seat after his past arrest record came to light.

Touted Democratic candidates in Arizona’s 1st district and Nevada’s 3rd, both targeted open seats, faced similar ethical problems and lost their races.

A number of sources emphasized that many of the problem candidates in the past cycle were thrust upon the DCCC by state party leaders or other Democratic players, giving them little chance to seek better alternatives to damaged contenders.

While publicly Democratic leaders say the measured approach is part of their broader plan to get the “right candidate,” there are some worries about the pace percolating throughout the Caucus. Leaders have promised that in the coming weeks more challengers will emerge, and by early fall they anticipate a pack of candidates will announce their intentions to run.

“Some Members are concerned,” said one senior Democratic aide. “But people are hopeful it will pick up. Obviously, something has got to get going.”

Hoyer acknowledged Democrats have certainly had better years in terms of enlisting challengers but insisted all is not lost.

“For us, it’s late in Washington because we’re into this game” of examining the national playing field, he said, adding that one of the jobs of recruiters is to convince prospective candidates that the summer of 2003 is getting close to being too late to mount a strong bid.

“I would like to have some more candidates than we have now,” said Hoyer. “But certainly in historical senses we’ve been in this place many times and ended up in September and October coming up with some great candidates.”

With Hoyer back in the mix, the three top Democratic House leaders are now playing formal roles trying to make gains next fall. Pelosi is the party’s lead fundraiser, while Menendez is leading the “Frontline Democrats” joint-fundraising committee designed to help finance vulnerable incumbents.

The difficulties in attracting candidates are manifold, Democratic lawmakers and strategists say. The war in Iraq redirected Democrats’ attention and distracted from their economic message, the party’s presidential nominee remains up in the air, campaign finance reform has hurt fundraising and it is difficult to convince would-be candidates they wouldn’t be facing a long stint in the minority.

One Democratic strategist with significant campaign experience said the slowed recruiting is more a result of the current mood of the party than the actions of the DCCC or party leaders.

“It’s easy to blame the [DCCC], but the truth is much harder to face,” the strategist said. “Prospective candidates don’t think Democrats can take the House back and serving in the minority is no fun.”

When Democrats picked up two seats in 2000, David Plouffe, the committee’s executive director that cycle (and now a senior strategist on Gephardt’s presidential campaign), said that some potential candidates “gamed out whether the presidential candidate would help them or hurt them.”

Vice President Al Gore’s populist pitch in the general election arguably affected a number of challenger candidates especially running in Southern seats. With no clear frontrunner in the current crop, that task is harder this year.

Even so, Plouffe believes “the best House candidates decide that the timing is right, want to serve and run regardless of the circumstances.”

“People who hem and haw have much less chance of success,” Plouffe added.

Republicans believe they are in significantly better shape. Challengers Bev Kilmer (Fla.), Charlie Dent (Pa.), Geoff Davis (Ky.), Adam Taff (Kan.), Jim Zupancic (Ore.), Dot Snyder (Texas) and Tim Phillips (Ore.) all will show more than $200,000 in the bank in their July quarterly reports.

“We are going race by race and trying to find the person who can fit the district and can win the race,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti.

As to the DCCC’s efforts, Forti said that with a “popular president and a Republican Congress that is getting things done, all across the country, Democrats’ top recruits are saying no.”

Democrats say they do face a challenge selling candidates given the current political landscape, but they are confident Bush’s popularity will continue to drop and the lagging economy will begin to influence voters. Those factors will eventually help persuade prospective candidates to get in the race.

“They recognize that it’s only going downhill for the Republicans,” said Gordon.

One Democratic strategist said his party has reason to hold out hope, adding that Democrats would have a lot more to worry about if “there were 20 great Republican challengers out there ready to run.”

“My philosophy about this is it seems that every cycle recruiting is all messed up,” said the strategist. “This is an age-old problem.”

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